Utah geneticists are plotting a revolution.
It's a revolution that promises to put more food on the plates of people in hungry countries. In the developed world, it could reduce the cost of everything from milk to pork, from rice to wheat.Through advances in cloning and other novel techniques of biotechnology, scientific visionaries could shake up the world as much as the industrial revolution did 200 years ago.
Genetics is outgrowing the novelty phase, when scientists were content to make exact copies of sheep and mice. It is venturing into the practical stage, when new techniques will create better cows, and design plants with vastly improved crop yield.
"It's just a matter of time, I believe," said Kenneth L. White, professor of reproductive biology at Utah State University, Logan.
White was speaking of a project he and other experts from USU and Brigham Young University, Provo, are launching to make identical copies of a superior milk cow.
A cow named Sonata may someday be replicated, said David L. Kooyman, assistant professor in the BYU Animal Science Department. "She's an excellent milk producer. It's a line we would like to work with and clone," he said.
Cloning is highly technical and requires a great deal of effort and money, so scientists at BYU and USU plan to work together on it. "It's real common to see projects like this done by several institutions in collaboration," Kooyman said.
"This is the first time we're actually seeing a practical application for it (cloning), where it will actually mean a difference for a producer and the consumer as well."
Researchers from both institutions are meeting this week to formalize their partnership. But nobody can say when the project will be finished. "I'm guessing three to five years. It's a difficult project," Kooyman said.
At USU, White's team has been working to restore an endangered Tibetan mountain sheep, the argali, by cloning.
They managed to create embryonic clones. The clones were implanted in domestic sheep, but after 49 or 50 days, the pregnancies failed.
"We're out of season, as far as breeding is concerned," White explained. However, the lab will try again.
Meanwhile, the dozen faculty members and students on his team are fired up over the new possibilities.
"The realization is starting to take hold that this, indeed, is doable, and indeed it may actually be something that over time we become pretty good at doing," he said.
"There's a tremendous excitement. Right now, the sky's the limit, potentially. There's a lot of opportunity for research, to try and understand these things."
What is the chance that there will be a second, third, fourth, etc., Sonata? "That's an interesting question to ask a scientist," said Kooyman. "I guess I would say I'm very optimistic that we'll succeed, but it's not a short-term project."
In addition to cloning, Kooyman has been involved in "transgenic work for a number of years now," he said. That is taking genes from one plant or animal species and implanting them in another. Pharmaceutical chemical could be grown by harmless bacteria. In livestock, growth and disease resistance can be improved.
Next month, Kooyman will travel to Beijing to discuss genetically altered pigs that would feed more efficiently and eat alternative feed. The Chinese are extremely interested in it, he said.
Genetic engineering has tremendous potential to benefit mankind. "It's a revolution, in a way I'm not sure we can completely fathom right now."
Just as revolutionary are the projects of John G. Carman, professor of plant genetics at USU.
Carman is working on a technique to trigger natural cloning among crops. Presently, only about 1 percent of flowering plants reproduce through the process, called apomixis.
"Apomixis is asexual seed formation," Carman said. "Dandelions are apomictic, and that means all of the little seeds that float around, they're clones of each other."
The greatest crops are grown from hybrid seeds, created by crossing two strains that have valuable characteristics. Hybrid wheat is much more productive than wild varieties.
Unfortunately, hybrids do not breed true. If seed corn is taken from a beautiful field of hybrid corn and planted, the next year's crop will be miserable: Ears that develop at different growth rates, flowers that pollinate unevenly.
If the farmer wants a second crop as good as the first, he has to buy more hybrid seeds and plant those. The seeds are costly, "because the process of making a hybrid is very expensive and time-consuming," he said.
They cost so much, year in and year out, that impoverished countries that most need good crops can't afford to buy hybrid seeds. Instead, farmers there settle for scantier crops from non-hybrids.
But suppose you could get a hybrid that reproduces by apomixis? "You'd retain your 10, 20 percent yield increase, and that could be planted back every year," said Carman.
"We discovered how it happened in nature, and we're in the nature of doing it with some model plants."
He emphasized that he hasn't been able to do it yet. In fact, he has avoided publicity, but agreed to talk about the process when contacted by the Deseret News.
Although success isn't certain, he is pursing a patent and forming a company Called F1 Technologies Inc. to market the new method. (F1 refers to the first generation of a hybrid.) "We expect to have apomictic plants - and they won't be crop plants, they'll be model plants - within two years. And if that is successful, then we will be looking at having some hybrid crops within five years from now."
If it succeeds, some crops of staples could increase by 10 percent or 20 percent. Rice, in fact, might go up by 30 percent.
BYU's Kooyman agrees that genetic improvements can help the world. Not only will livestock costs drop in the United States, but poorer countries will be better able to feed themselves.
"The exciting part, to me, is I see the tremendous ability that biotechnology has to revolutionize agriculture," he said.