|ecoglobe news (1 August 1999)|
If Arnold Schwarzenegger could moo, his name could just as easily be George or Charlie. George and Charlie are cows whose genes were altered and placed into embryos before they were cloned in a process called transgenic cloning. Their birth following Dolly, the famous cloned sheep with unaltered genes, marked a first in science and planted the seeds for a new technology and business that could have far-reaching impacts on the agricultural industry in Georgia.
In fact, barnyard biotechnology is the basis for a virtual Noah's ark of startup firms springing up in Athens, where another firm has discovered a way to use fish for environmental and chemical testing.
But first, the cows.
World-renowned scientist Steve Stice has been recruited from the University of Massachusetts to the University of Georgia, where he's teamed with scholar Clifton Baile to spin their ability to genetically alter cattle -- and, eventually, hogs -- into a multimillion-dollar business.
The fledgling enterprise, ProLinia Inc., is taking off with the assistance of the UGA and the Georgia Research Alliance, which recruits and assists high-tech firms.
"Our business is to harness the power of cloning and transgenics and deliver it for improving cattle and hogs," says Baile, an eminent scholar in agricultural biotechnology and distinguished professor of animal science/foods and nutrition at UGA. "We'll be producing embryos for our first client this summer."
The birth of the first transgenically altered cattle Stice wanted to name them Lewis and Clark before the PR people got involved - marks the conception of a revolutionary approach to raising livestock in the 21st century.
Think about a heifer on steroids, with bulging muscles, protruding biceps and a hippopotamus-sized body. Stice has illustrations depicting what the Arnold Schwarzenegger cow would look like. He shows other illustrations of rodents --some with gene deletions and some without -- that demonstrate the ability to create an Olive Oyl, Hulk Hogan or Dom DeLouise mouse.
By genetically altering cattle, scientists can produce cows with more muscle, more meat or, in the case of Holsteins, more milk. While the average cow produces about 15,000 lbs. of milk each year, some produce as much as 60,000. Scientists can clone these lactate overachievers so that farmers can produce more milk with fewer animals. "One cow could do what two used to do," says Stice.
There's also the potential to expand into areas such as pharming" -- genetically altering the composition of milk in cattle to increase disease resistance and produce medicine through both milk and urine.
Objections to cloning have been raised by environmentalists, skeptical farmers, academics who oppose the mix of biotechnology and business, and even Humane Society ethicists who claim new "monocultures" could increase a herd's susceptibility to disease. Stice claims the fears are overstated and says reasonable scientists will be wary of cloning too much. But he acknowledges the possibilities of cloning cats and dogs in the not-too-distant future.
The first challenges, though, rest with cows and pigs. "We can make the biggest impact the fastest there," says Stice. Statistics suggest the cost of cloning one animal today can fall between $ 100,000 and $ 200,000. In a few years, the founders behind ProLinia expect to done cows for as little as $ 5,000 each. Over the next five years, ProLinia hopes to mark another first by cloning the first pig.
"We'll reduce cost production for both hogs and cattle, and improve the quality of the product," says Baile.
The facilities are in the company's incubation space in UGA's new $ 22 million animal science complex, complete with specialized sanitary pens, an operating room and high-tech Eppendorf microscopes with pinchers used to genetically alter embryos before they are implanted.
Because it can take up to 100 embryos to impregnate a cow, cloning is costly. "The potential for reducing cost is in getting those efficiencies up," says Stice, who holds the endowed chair of animal bovine reproductive physiology.
Baile calls Stice "a lightning rod" for both media and scientists. "The role of the Georgia Research Alliance really helped attract Steve to Georgia, and the program for endowed chairs makes it possible," he says. "It's hard to be in an area that's cutting-edge and newsworthy."
The GRA provided resources to the university to support academic research, including equipment and microscopes used for cloning. Because the university has licensed the technology, it will earn revenue from the success of ProLinia.
In the next five years, say principals, the company will be actively cloning cows and hogs, have multiple customers and will have established its own office off campus. The goal is to be the low-cost, high-volume provider of genetics to the large animal production industries. Near-term revenue will come from small-scale cloning of elite animals and genetic storage. Once mass cloning is established -- in three to four years producers will pay for genetics on a per pig basis, with estimated costs of a few dollars per pig.
"You never know what Mother Nature has in store," says Baile.
And it's the unknown that holds much promise for another Athens-based startup a fishy business known as Mariner Biolabs. LLC.
Housed in the same facility as ProLinia, scientist Richard Winn is using transgenic medaka, a Japanese freshwater fish, to detect environmental problems and discover the harmful effects of chemicals, including long-term impact of low exposures.
"It's kind of like the canary in a coal mine, with fins," says Winn.
The transgenic fish can be used to assess the role chemicals play in causing cancer and infectious health problems or in damaging environments. "Many diseases can be caused by fundamental changes in DNA. Mutations are very low frequency events, and we need sensitive detection methods."
Winn's work is supported by the National Institute of Health, which is looking at alternative models to study disease-using organisms other than animals and rodents, which can cost up to a quarter a day to maintain. Few people seem to be overly sensitive about fish, which can be kept for pennies a day.
Another advantage is that they can be exposed to a test substance 24 hours a day to reflect true environmental exposures. They also can be exposed to chemicals at low amounts, reproduce in great numbers, and undergo tests difficult or impossible to conduct with rodents.
"It's a rapid way to analyze the potential for mutations," Winn says.
Mariner Biolabs, which plans to capitalize on the technology, was established in December 1998 with seed capital from Liberty Street Capital. The company will serve as a contract research organization to perform biological tests for a wide range of industries, including agriculture, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing and the environment.
"Once, nobody understood Velcro was needed either," says Winn.
Like ProLinia, Mariner Biolabs also has the support of the university and the GRA. "We're lining up contracts now," says Winn.
Plans call for Mariner Biolabs to have up to 20 people in the next year, and be profitable in 18 months.
Tom Green of Liberty Street Capital says global toxicity testing is a $ 13 billion market, $ 7 billion in the U.S.
"There are 87,000 chemicals in our environment needing testing," he says.
"There are 3,000 drug efforts every year. In the next three to five years, we should be able to grow sales between $ 50 million and $ 100 million and go from there."
This article was received from
Mark Ritchie, President, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
2105 First Ave. South, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404 USA
612-870-3400 (phone) 612-870-4846 (fax) firstname.lastname@example.org www.iatp.org
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