x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Scientists celebrate camel cloning

Experts who engineered birth of Injaz in Dubai are at work on reproducing animals with more distinguished bloodlines.

DUBAI // At eight months old today, Injaz looks very much like any other young camel. She is full of life, cavorting around her fenced-off patch of sand on the outskirts of Dubai, and inquisitive about the cameras pointed at her. And growing up fast, too. Her coat may still be the darker, reddish-sandy colour of a young camel, but she is already about half the size of her mother and about chest-high to a human who is feeding her handfuls of straw and grass.

Still, though, she returns to suckle, and the two cling as closely as any mother and baby would. "She is lovely," said Dr Nisar Wani, one of the small group of people who look after her. "When I come here in the morning, the first thing is to go to Injaz. And before I leave, I go to Injaz." But the older female is not, in the strictest sense, Injaz's mother, despite having given birth to her back in April.

And Injaz is not just another baby camel. The enclosure is part of the Camel Reproduction Centre, and Injaz is a world first: a camel clone. Born on April 8, she is the product of more than five years of work by scientists at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) and the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai. Yesterday Dr Wani, the man who developed the technique to produce what experts call a reconstructed embryo one that carries the DNA of a donor camel within the egg of a surrogate mother revealed that he is already at work to produce more clones.

"We have been given some confidential jobs by rulers," said Dr Wani, although he added he is not able to reveal more details about the assignments, some of which are at an advanced stage. Injaz, the Arabic word for "achievement", comes from humble stock: the camel from which she was cloned was slaughtered for meat in 2005. But future clones will have a somewhat loftier heritage: they will be cloned from some of the world's best racing camels.

The idea, according to Dr Ulrich Wernery, the CVRL's scientific director, came seven years ago from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. "Sheikh Mohammed called me," said Dr Wernery, "and said, 'I want you to take a sample of my camel'." The animal, a male, was of an elite lineage and the Ruler was interested in preserving its genes through cloning. The scientists took a skin sample, which is still kept at the centre, frozen in liquid nitrogen.

"This was the beginning," said Dr Wernery. "Back then we had nothing, no people or lab equipment." In 2003 Dr Wani, previously assistant professor at the Sheri-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, in Srinagar, India, started work at the CVRL under the administration of Dr Ali Ridha. In 2007, after developing a method for embryo reconstruction, Dr Wani moved to the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai, where work to transfer the embryos into surrogate mothers started. There he was joined by Dr Lulu Skidmore, an expert in embryo transfer.

The details of how Injaz was created, as well as proof that her genetic make-up has nothing to do with that of the surrogate mother, have been published in a paper in the journal Biology of Reproduction. Now the animal's birth proves that the technique of creating a clone has been mastered, the team is moving on, not only to elite camels, but also to those that are genetically engineered. "We will clone more camels," said Dr Wani.

"Maybe in the near future we can start work on producing transgenic camels." These are camels with genes that have been taken from other species or created artificially and deliberately inserted into their genomes. The technique has already given rise to sheep, goats and chickens with the ability to produce, respectively, milk or eggs containing valuable proteins - insulin, for example. "For this, we need to start from scratch again," said Dr Wani.

Meanwhile, the scientists are carefully monitoring Injaz's health for any signs of age-related diseases and other complications. Dolly, the sheep that in July 1996 became the world's first successfully cloned mammal, lived less than seven years, about half the normal lifespan of her breed. Dolly had to be put down in February 2003 because of a lung disease usually found in older animals. There were other signs, too, that she was old before her time; Dolly had developed arthritis.

Some theorised that the cause of the ageing was that the animal from which Dolly's DNA came was already six years old when the cells were taken for cloning. One suggestion, as yet unproven, points the finger at structures known as telomeres, tight bundles of DNA at the end of the chromosomes that slowly unwind with age. Because this unwinding would not be "reset" during the cloning process, scientists speculate, a baby replicated animal would have telomeres unwound to the same degree as the adult animal from which its DNA came.

This, they say, could make the clone's cells behave like those of an older animal, including being susceptible to the degenerative diseases of ageing. "Sometimes, because these are older genes, the animals might develop disease early on," said Dr Skidmore. "Dolly got arthritis from an early age because the cells were old." Could the same happen to Injaz? "We simply do not know," she said.

vtodorova@thenational.ae