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(CNN) When Nisar Ahmad Wani succeeded in performing the world’s first camel cloning in 2009, it was hailed as a major achievement. Today, Wani is scientific director at the Center for Reproductive Biotechnology, in Dubai, and the practice is so popular that cloning has become his nine-to-five job.
Wani and his team research and develop new cloning techniques and maintain cell banks, allowing them to make copies of animals, including buffalo and sheep. But the center’s focus is on camel cloning.
Every year, it produces dozens of cloned dromedary camel calves. Among the most popular are the replicas of “beauty queens” with camels, with the right combination of drooping lips and long necks.
Replication of beauties
Camel beauty pageants are popular in the Gulf states, and prize money runs into the tens of millions of dollars at some events. Owners have been disqualified in the past for using banned techniques such as injecting camels with silicone and fillers, and inflating body parts using rubber bands to improve their appearance. But as far as these races are concerned, cloned camels are perfectly legal.
Although the Reproductive Biotechnology Center declined to share its prices, according to reports in the local press, making an exact copy of your most beautiful camel can set you back around 200,000 dirhams, or just over $50,000.
In addition to beauty queens, Wani and his team have also bred elite racing champions to compete in the UAE’s many camel races (some of which are threatened by robots and can earn winners thousands of dollars in prize money), as well as genetically altered camels to produce proteins in their milk that can be used for pharmaceutical applications. They’ve also been able to present owners of dead camels with a copy of their dead pet — cell samples can even be taken shortly after the animal’s death.
Wani works with a process that uses DNA from “somatic” (or non-reproductive) cells taken from the donor animal being cloned. The nucleus from these donor cells is inserted into an egg and activated by chemicals.
“The DNA from the somatic cell starts to behave like the DNA of an embryo,” Wani tells CNN. “Once activated, they are cultured in the lab for seven to eight days before being transferred into the womb of a surrogate mother.
“The produced child has all the genes from a donor animal.”
According to Wani, the process is delicate and temperamental, with the success rate for cloned pregnancies at just 10%, compared to 60% of natural camel pregnancies that carry to term.
A cultural symbol
It may seem very difficult to go for a camel, but animals are an important part of life in Dubai. In addition to appearing in pageants and races, historically these one-humped dromedaries have been used for transport across the harsh deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a source of meat and milk. But they are also a cultural symbol of the traditional Emirati way of life.
“Camels were an essential element in ensuring that life was possible in the Arabian Peninsula before the age of oil and gas,” says Obaid Al Falasi, co-founder of the Arabian Desert Camel Riding Centre, Dubai’s first riding school. “Travel and trade between countries and settlements was facilitated by camels, which had the ability to endure the harsh climate and survive on very little food and water.”
Camels, he adds, were the treasure and companion of the people, and so it is even today for some tribes and families of the Emirates. For many people, they also have spiritual significance. “Camels are mentioned in the Koran and described many times as unique compared to other animals, with God-given abilities — like surviving without water and food,” says Al Falasi.
Despite their status, he says cloning a camel is not considered sacrilegious. “Cloning is a scientific achievement in itself and should be considered as such,” he explains.
The Dubai Camel Breeding Center and its Camel Reproduction Center also produce elite camels, but instead of cloning, these two labs focus on embryo transfer, where an embryo is taken from a female and implanted into a different camel to improve the chances and rate of reproduction.
Al Falasi says that cloning is too expensive for most people and that embryo transfer is more common, “to ensure that a good camel can produce more offspring. [through surrogacy]instead of every year or two.”
Back from the brink
Now, Wani and his team are looking to use the technology to help endangered species.
The wild Bactrian two-humped camel is among the most endangered large mammals on the planet, threatened by habitat loss and interbreeding with domestic camels. To help conserve wild Bactrian camels, Wani and his team are working on techniques involving interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a closely related domestic animal species is used as an egg donor as well as a surrogate mother for them. cloned embryos brought to term.
In 2017, the first cloned Bactrian camel was born at the center using this method, after an embryo was implanted into a dromedary camel.
In the future, Wani hopes to use the cloning technique to conserve other critically endangered animal species and even help restore extinct species.
“Our center is focused on the development and application of the latest reproductive biotechnology techniques such as cloning, IVF, artificial insemination and embryo transfer to increase the reproduction of the region’s various animal species and also to conserve endangered species” , says Wani.
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