x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Top racers to preventing extinction, Dubai camel lab has lofty goals

Multimedia What do you get if you cross a camel with a llama? And why was an ungulate called Injaz such a major achievement? Laura Collins goes in search of the answers at the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai.

A surrogate camel mother is checked with a sonogram to see how her embryo is developing.
A surrogate camel mother is checked with a sonogram to see how her embryo is developing.

It is almost noon. The air is heavy and quiet, save for the occasional flurry that sends pockets of sand skittering up. Moments earlier farmhands hoisted hay into vast, canopied mangers while camels brayed with impatient hunger. Now the men are indoors and the camels - 150 or so of them spread across three pens - are silently occupied with the business of eating.

Breeding season (October to April) has not long ended and many of the females in this herd are carrying calves which, it is hoped, will prove champion racing camels. For the next 13 months - the camel's gestation period - there is nothing to do but wait.

It is a scene and a rhythm steeped in desert heritage. Only the terminology of this place indicates that all is not quite as initial impressions suggest. Because this is not a farm but a facility. The female camels who chomp their way through lunch are not mothers but recipients or surrogates. The calves they carry started life as embryos formed in another camel's womb. It is a process that renders the mother a donor. Chosen for her elite bloodline, she is free to breed many times in a season, untroubled by ever having to carry the pregnancy to term.

At least four of the recipients/surrogates among this herd are carrying embryos that have no true parent camel at all. Their only familial relation is to the creature from which they were cloned. Meanwhile what looks like a small petting zoo tacked on to the side of all this, replete with a trio of llamas, is, on closer inspection, a pen of hybrids: camas. Half camel, half llama, they are the extremely friendly, utterly infertile products of a now defunct research programme that ran in the late 1990s.

Welcome to the Camel Reproduction Centre (CRC). Officially the CRC is located in Dubai. In reality it lies a good 40km south-east towards Hatta. It sits without a signpost behind a gate at the end of a long unmarked road.

Little more than a series of pens and a huddle of prefabricated huts, it is hardly a prepossessing complex. Yet this is the most advanced camel research centre in the world. It has played host to delegations of experts from Kenya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, America, Australia and Europe.

The original purpose of the centre, established in 1989 under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, was to boost the breeding potential of his elite racing camels without compromising their bloodline.

Today the centre is at the very forefront of work aimed at reducing world hunger and saving critically endangered species through assisted reproduction techniques: artificial insemination, embryo transfer and, most headline-grabbing of all, cloning.

Dr Nisar Wani is the head of the centre's reproductive biology laboratory, established in 2003 with the sole purpose of perfecting camel cloning. "We had to start from scratch, from zero," he recalls. "Slowly, slowly I developed the process and a database. It took four years but by 2007 we were ready."

The initial animal cloned was not an elite creature but one due to be slaughtered in an Abu Dhabi abattoir. It was, after all, an experiment with no guarantee of success. The provenance did not matter so much as the basic genetic health of the creature.

Blood and skin cell samples were taken and, from that, four embryos grown and transferred into surrogates. Of those four pregnancies, one went to term resulting in the birth of Injaz, meaning Achievement, in April 2009.

Injaz is still at the CRC - fly-swatting, hay-chewing testament to Dr Wani's scientific endeavour. Several clones have been born since Injaz, who currently shares a pen with Bin Soughan. Son (though more accurately clone) of Soughan, a favourite racing camel of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, Bin Soughan was born in February last year. He is one of more than a dozen camels successfully cloned since Injaz's arrival two years ago. But, by Dr Wani's own admission, there is still a lot of work to be done before cloning eclipses, or even matches, the success of more conventional methods of assisted reproduction.

He explains: "There's not much problem creating the embryos now. It's the process of transferring them into the surrogates that is the limiting factor. From hundreds of embryos we're lucky if we get five or six pregnancies and of them they might not all go to term. But we are working on it.

"Impossible is not in my vocabulary and, inshallah, we will make all things possible."

With that boundless future in mind Dr Wani and his team are creating a "frozen zoo", of sorts; cell samples of prized camels, much-loved pets and endangered species stored in liquid nitrogen. In theory no species need ever truly die out if some cellular remnant is saved and frozen, to be reactivated and cloned at some point in the future.

Right now, Dr Wani's cloning expertise is part of the CRC's latest project to save the two-humped Bactrian camel, first thought to have been domesticated in Iran.

It is thought only 600 of these creatures remain in the wild, though nobody knows why they are dwindling towards extinction. Dr Wani is reluctant to spell out how close he is to successfully cloning a Bactrian, saying only: "We are working on it. We will do it."

Truth be told, more immediate hope for the continuation of the species can probably be found in the far simpler process of Embryo Transfer carried out by the CRC's scientific director, Dr Lulu Skidmore, and her team.

She explains: "Cloning is terribly clever but it is fiddly and difficult and its success rate is not hugely high. Embryo transfer is something you can translate to different countries far more easily and see results far more swiftly.

"I've been to Iran a couple of times now getting embryos from their Bactrian camels and transferring them into dromedaries. The two are so closely related they can actually crossbreed.There's no problem with the dromedary carrying a Bactrian camel."

By using this technique rather than having the Bactrian females carrying the calf to term, Dr Skidmore can maximise the number of Bactrian embryos gestated from one breeding season. A female camel can produce 10 to 20 embryos at a time of which only one will implant and result in pregnancy. By extracting and transferring them to individual surrogates all can be potentially carried to term. So instead of one Bactrian producing one calf in two years, she could produce 20 or more.

Cambridge-educated Dr Skidmore has worked with camels for more than 20 years. She started her scientific career in equine medicine and, by her own admission, dismissed the idea of working with camels as "crazy" when it was first suggested as a focus for her PhD thesis.

"My supervisor had been recruited as consultant to the CRC in 1989 and I had spent some time in Dubai working alongside him, but focusing on camels seemed mad to me at first. Then it sank in that really nothing was known about them. There was a whole world of research there to be done, and that's how you move forward in science."

A fledgling incarnation of the CRC was already established when Dr Skidmore arrived to study full time in 1991. She never dreamt that, two decades on, she would still be here or that the CRC would prove so successful and its work have such far-reaching ramifications.

"You always have to ask why you are doing something when it comes to research," she says. "When we bred the hybrids [they were born in 1996] the idea was to see if we could reunite the Old and New World camelids. It worked, the Camas were born and there's an argument that, in South America for example, they could be a useful pack animal - they're stronger then llamas, woollier than dromedary camels and easier to handle. But they're infertile. So that's on the back-burner.

"Cloning is very clever but embryo transfer is still far more practical. The original 'Why?' of the CRC was to breed racing elite camels.

"One racing elite camel can cost Dh8 million or more. Embryo transfer is Dh300,000 or 400,000 and even cloning isn't much more expensive."

But Dr Skidmore's ambition extends beyond racing elite camels and saving endangered species. Her real goal is to use embryo transfer to address world hunger.

That may sound outlandish but she insists: "It could be used to focus on milk producing, meat producing and big transport camels.

"Just think, if you have a small dairy herd with a few good milkers: rather than breeding them all and having a whole bunch of mediocre milkers you could use embryo transfer, select the strong milkers and have a herd full of them instead. Camel milk is very nutritious, camels can survive in conditions that would kill cattle and where crops can't grow.

"Embryo transfer may sound basic but it's something that can make a difference worldwide. It will take governments to get involved and a lot of financial input. Nothing will be easy but we have the techniques. The potential for so much is there."

Or, perhaps more accurately, the potential is here.



Camel tales

Camels are classified in the family Camelidae and first appeared 40 million years ago in North America.

Today there are six camelids: two true camels - the single-humped dromedary and the double-humped, Bactrian - and four South American camelids - the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna.

Fossil evidence suggests the South American camelids diverged 11 million years ago.

Around this time, some camelids migrated to South America and became today's New World camelids, while others travelled into Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Pakistan to become the dromedary camel and others still crossed the Bering Strait, travelling into China and Central Asia and evolving into the Bactrian camel of today.

Both species of camel are about three metres long and two metres high at the hump, but Bactrians are darker, stockier and hardier beasts of burden and have woollier coats. It is estimated that there are only 600 Bactrian camels remaining in the wild.


Females first

Female camels are generally preferred for racing, although there are separate races for male and female camels. A good racing female is very valuable so it is important to breed from her by making her a donor of eggs.

Hormones are used to stimulate development of multiple eggs before the elite female is mated or artifically inseminated with a genetically suitable male. Multiple embryos are produced which cannot be carried to term as camels usually only have single births.

After seven days, the embryos are "flushed" from the donor (there can be as many as 20 viable embryos) and transferred to surrogates who carry the calf to term .

After about six weeks this elite donor will be ready to go through the process again and more embryos can be produced.

So where in nature there might be one calf born to an elite camel every two years as the gestation period is 13 months, through embryo transfer she can have several calves born in one season.


Cloning method

A cell sample is taken from the original animal - from the skin, for example.

These cells are then nurtured in vitro until they have multiplied many times over.

They are then frozen first overnight at -80° Celsius to allow gradual cooling and not damage the cells before they are placed in liquid nitrogen at -196°C.

A week or so before the sample is to be used some cells are removed from storage and nurtured at "starvation levels," which means they are awake but inert and not reproducing as they would normally do.

An egg is taken and its DNA removed, leaving it essentially an empty shell. The sample cells are introduced and activated using a cocktail of chemicals designed to wipe clean the cell's "memory" of its original function and trick it into behaving like a cell programmed to develop into an embryo.

After seven days of culturing in vitro, the resulting embryos are transferred into a surrogate.