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Still a Crossbreed, but This Baby Mule Is a Full-Blooded Clone

The creation of Idaho Gem by scientists is a first for any member of the horse family.

May 30, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Scientists have cloned a baby mule, a gangly creature named Idaho Gem -- brother of the world's second-fastest racing mule and the first successful clone of any member of the horse family.

Idaho Gem's creation, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Idaho and Utah State University, raises the possibility that valuable competition horses or endangered equine species could pass on their genes even if they are sterile or dead.

The births of two more mule clones, genetically identical to Idaho Gem, are expected in June and August.

The mule clone's birth is also a big event for mule racing enthusiasts. The sport, centered in the fairgrounds of Northern California, has been growing in popularity in part because of the rivalry between two racing stars, world champion Black Ruby and Idaho Gem's genetic brother, Taz.

"He sure sounds and looks like he's going to be a Taz," said Don Jacklin, Taz's owner, president of the American Mule Racing Assn. and sponsor of the cloning project. "I have a definite strong interest in securing the availability ... of at least one of the cloned babies to take to the racetrack."

In cloning, the genetic material from a nonreproductive cell is inserted into an egg that has had its own genetic material removed. The cell is coaxed to start dividing into an embryo, and it is then implanted into a mother to develop to term. The result is a genetic clone of the animal that donated the genetic material.

Since 1996, scientists have cloned a range of mammals, including sheep, goats, pigs and cows. But they never have had success in cloning a member of the horse family, because it has proved hard to culture the animals' eggs and embryos in a lab.

Scientists Gordon Woods and Dirk Vanderwall of the University of Idaho and Ken White of Utah State said they succeeded in creating a mule clone after altering the culture medium in which they bathed the eggs and embryos.

The scientists' research is being published today in the journal Science.

The birth of Idaho Gem on May 4 and the two pending births involved 334 cloning attempts. Idaho Gem's origins were confirmed by independent genetic testing at UC Davis.

Idaho Gem's origins are strange in ways that go beyond his being half-horse and half-donkey. The scientists opted not to clone Taz directly because of suspicions that using genetic material from an adult animal might cause premature aging in a clone.

Instead, they decided to create a brother of Taz. In 1998, they created a fetus from Taz's mother and father. Cells from that fetus were used to create a line of skin cells, which were the source of the genetic material to make Idaho Gem.

The researchers are planning to apply the same techniques toward cloning horses, but others may succeed sooner. A team of Italian scientists said that the birth of a horse clone is expected within days, and a team at Texas A&M University has a horse clone expected in November.

Cloning horses is important because it could help increase the genetic pool of threatened species such as the wild Przewalski horse, said Katrin Hinrichs, head of the horse cloning project at Texas A&M.

Other prized horses could also be cloned. For instance, Triple Crown contender Funny Cide is a gelding and can never pass on his natural racing talent to foals.

But what if Funny Cide were cloned? A Funny Cide clone would never be allowed to run in the Triple Crown, said Bob Curran Jr., vice president of corporate communications for the Jockey Club, which oversees the registration of North American Thoroughbreds. Even artificial insemination is banned.

Rules for quarter horses are looser (shipped semen, for instance, is permitted). But cloning is expressly prohibited under rules passed in March, said Gary Griffith, executive director of registration for the American Quarter Horse Assn.

Hinrichs pointed out, however, that cloned horses could probably compete in Olympic events.

As for mules -- at least for now -- anything goes.

"We're incredibly excited about it," said Kate Snider of the American Mule Racing Assn. "I would love to see Idaho Gem in a race."

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