x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Camel clone has the looks of a winner

A beast judged prettiest at a local camel beauty contest and worth several million dirhams has been successfully cloned in a Dubai laboratory.

The cloned camel calf is pictured here with its surrogate mother.
The cloned camel calf is pictured here with its surrogate mother.

DUBAI //A "beauty queen" camel has been cloned in a ground-breaking laboratory on the fringes of Dubai.

The female calf, born two weeks ago, is genetically identical to a former prize-winning camel worth several million dirhams.

Dubai's Reproductive Biology Laboratory produced the clone for a fraction of that amount.

Dr Nisar Wani, who heads the research team at the laboratory, said there was little difference between a camel born naturally or through cloning.

"A cloned camel is as good as a normal camel," he said.

Whether a camel is judged to be beautiful or not is a major factor in determining its value. At the annual Al Dhafra Camel Festival, buyers can pay up to Dh20 million for a single bull.

Dr Wani said that although cloning was available to all private owners, he did not expect the presence of cloned camels would drastically bring down prices in the market.

"It takes a lot of work and a very long time to clone a camel," he said. "I don't think there will be lots of these cloned camels around."

Conventional cloning is done by a process called nuclear cell transfer. A skin sample from the original animal is taken and genetic material from the cells is inserted into an "empty" egg – one which has had its own nucleus removed. Afterwards, the egg is then reinserted into the uterus of the surrogate mother and pregnancy occurs naturally.

It is the same procedure that was used to create Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, in 1996. Dolly died in February 2003 at the age of seven.

This calf is the 15th camel to be born at the centre. The first, named Injaz, was born in April 2009 and still lives at the Dubai laboratory.

Most of the animals born so far are clones from herds of the country's royal family, the majority of them being pedigree racing camels.

The latest calf is the first "beautiful" camel to have been born at the centre.

The centre also has long-term plans to extend its cloning programme to endangered species such as the oryx, the Arabian leopard and the tahr.

A "frozen zoo" of cells containing the DNA of dozens of species has been collected over the past two years by Dr Wani and his team, and there are plans to gradually start work on the project.

Dr Wani said the laboratory was in the process of being extended with the possibility of starting work at the beginning of the next breeding season, in October or November, although the plans were not yet confirmed.

"To do this, we needed to have some infrastructure and staff," he said. "Hopefully, next season we should start doing some work on those projects."

He said it had not yet been decided what their priority would be, although Dr Wani said the centre was furthest ahead with efforts to clone the two-humped Bactrian camel.

The animal, which hails from Mongolia, is highly endangered, with only 600 left in the wild.

Dr Wani said work had officially begun last year. "We have got some good embryos, but we still need to get some babies," he said. "We keep trying, in the next breeding season, until we get success."

mcroucher@thenational.ae