Meet Idaho Gem, a cute little spud who is the first member of the equine family to be cloned.

Idaho Gem was cloned by a team from the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, and Utah State University, Logan. The mule's birth on May 4 was announced today by Science, the respected research journal.

Science is publishing an article in its Friday edition about the cloning. The team includes Gordon Woods, University of Idaho professor of animal and veterinary science; Kenneth L. White, USU professor of animal science; and Dirk Vanderwall, UI assistant professor of animal and veterinary science.

White and his laboratory crew carried out the actual cloning procedure. "I saw the baby when it was a single cell. So I feel, I guess, like a happy father," he said Thursday in a telephone interview while visiting the University of Idaho.

For several years, he and his team have been traveling to that university for four weeks of research during the summer. "We built the clones and cultured them and that sort of thing," he said.

Not only is Idaho Gem the first member of the equines to be cloned. It is also the first hybrid animal created by cloning. Hybrids are the result of the breeding of two separate species — in this case, a male donkey and a female horse — and are almost always sterile.

The fact that they are sterile used to mean that champion mules could not reproduce, so whatever superior characteristics they had would die with them. That may change with the advent of cloning.

Also, champion racehorses often are geldings, that is, castrated stallions. They are unable to reproduce in the normal way, but now their lines possibly may be continued.

An announcement by Science noted that until now, researchers were unable to clone horses or equine relatives. But Woods and colleagues "found that increasing the calcium concentrations in the media" containing cloning material "may have contributed to the success."

Authors implanted 305 oocytes, pre-embryos, in surrogate mother mares. One of the clones, Idaho Gem, was born on May 4 while two mares were still pregnant with cloned mules.

So far, Idaho Gem has developed normally, Science notes. The magazine has an Internet presence at www.sciencemag.org.

"It's real exciting," White told the Deseret News Thursday shortly before the a press conference at the University of Idaho. "I've never seen so many press people."

White is recognized as an expert on cattle cloning. In 1998, a Deseret News article noted that his team had been working for several years to improve cloning.

At that time, he and his associates were working on a project to clone a superior milk cow. They were investigating how to reprogram the donor nucleus, and how to "turn on" the newly implanted egg containing cloned material so that it will start to grow.

According to the University of Idaho, the foal's DNA came from a fetal cell culture established in 1998 at that university. The breakthrough may have come through understanding the cellular biology necessary for cloning, according to Woods, and this may offer new insights into cancer development.

In addition to cloning mules, the researchers also made 61 attempts with horse DNA. Seven apparent pregnancies resulted, with two of the embryonic foals developing heartbeats. But they did not develop past a critical 60-day threshold, says a UI press release.

The major private sponsor of the cloning project was Don Jacklin, a businessman from Post Falls, Idaho, who races mules. Idaho Gem is a full brother of Taz, a champion racing mule owned by Jacklin.

Genetic material was taken from a fetal mule that was the offspring of Taz' parents. The animal was harvested at 45 days' gestation.

"We took skin tissue from the fetus and put them in a culture and grew up millions of cells," White said. One of these cells were used in the cloning of Idaho Gem. The cloned material was implanted in a surrogate mother mare, and the horse gave birth to Idaho Gem.

Fetal cells were used at the start of the project in 1998 because back then, scientists suspected that fetal cells would be easier to clone than adult cells.

Now, White said, most experts conclude that there's probably little difference in the success rates between using cells from adult animals and from fetal animals.

In horse racing, males frequently are gelded. Apparently not worrying about mares allows them to grow into powerful racing animals. But that means their genes can't be passed on by breeding. Funny Cide, this year's winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness races, is in that fix.


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