Report From Our Visit to the National Livestock Breeding Center:
NLBC Researchers Recognize “Failure of Cloning”
By Koketsu Michiyo, CUJ/FSCW
Food Safety Citizens Watch visited the National Livestock Breeding Center (NLBC) in Fukushima Prefecture on September 9, 2009. This is the center that has been designated to continue the work that started in 1998 to improve the productivity of cattle breeding using somatic cell clone technology. In June, Japan’s Food Safety Commission stated that “somatic cell cloned livestock is safe for use as human food,” i. e. that meat and milk from from cloned cows, pigs and so on will be safe. However, among consumers, a strong sense of doubt and insecurity remains, as researchers have not been able to eradicate problems such as stillbirths and abnormal deaths among the cloned animals. In order to investigate the current status of the research, we visited the NLBC.
First of all, we were surprised by the low success ratio of somatic cell clones, which is not even 3% among domestic animals. At the NLBC ranch in Tokachi, Hokkaido, researchers have so far attempted to create 1,509 cloned cattle, but only 391 were conceived properly, or around 26%. Among them, we were told that only 42 heads survived feeding and achieved normal growth, or 2.8%.
During our visit, the center frankly admitted, “We have currently not achieved any rapid improvement.”
We were not able to get any clear explanation for why the production rate has been so low, but it was agreed that it is related to epigenetic mutation. Usually, immediately after fertilization, the epigenetic information of the genes is turned off once, and after that, the information is written anew. However, in the case of somatic cell clones, the animals that are born seem to have so many abnormalities and problems because the initialization never takes place.
We were able to clarify some issues arising from a detailed report by the center that was released in June, 2009 concerning ways to apply somatic cell cloning technologies to improve livestock. Among these, the center suggested that it is “difficult” to “duplicate superior individuals” which is the original purpose of cloning. Also, the report clearly stated that there has been no real improvement and no faster technology to apply cloning at cattle ranches. In addition, the researchers are admitting that there is no economic merit.
With such a sorry state of affairs, one would think that the researchers should have stopped their cloning projects, but they are still trying to get results. According to the center’s June report, there is an increase in the official approvals for using novel testing methods for cloned cattle. These approvals are for inspecting if the desired superior characteristics are inherited to the first and second generation of the offspring. If the traits can be inherited, it is assumed that fewer animals would be needed on cattle ranches, which would save costs. However, a prerequisite for this is that the productivity rate must be raised from the current dismal 2.8% to at least 20%, and this is not happening.
Confusingly, on their homepage, NLBC published its conclusion (basically saying that cloning is a waste a of time) on June 26, just one day after the Food Safety Commission published its report (basically sticking to the view that food from cloned cattle is safe). It seems the Food Safety Commission must have been aware of the contents of the detailed NLBC report regarding the failure of cloning when they concluded that food from cloned livestock is safe.
During our visit to NLBC, we understood that cloning using fertilized eggs, the forerunner of somatic cell clone technology, has largely been discontinued in reality. As we could not discover any practical merits from the continued research, perhaps somatic cell cloning will also be discontinued sooner or later. If that is the case, why was the Food Safety Commission in such a hurry to publish its verdict? Our only guess is that when meat from cloned animals in the United States will start to be imported to Japan without approval, there will be no way to call for it to be stopped, and that the government was under pressure to prevent such a situation from arising.
Taking these factors into account, as well as the many public comments collected by the Food Safety Commission, with the deep-rooted opposition to food from cloned animals and the insecurity that consumers have expressed, and the continued opposition led by our citizens group, we can only conclude that it would be better to apply the brakes and stop promoting cloning technology research at the National Livestock Breeding Center. After our visit, we were left feeling that this would be the best solution for all parties.
For more details about the status of cloning technology in Japan, please see the following recent reports from CBIC Bio Journal: