doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.62 Published online 25 February 2009
Chinese embryologists have challenged the recent claim of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) of having produced the world's first buffalo clone. They say China had produced the first clones way back in 2004 and 2005, though with a technique different from the one used by ICAR's National Dairy Research Centre in Karnal, Haryana. NDRI had claimed to have produced the world's first cloned buffalo calf on February 6, 2009.
Deshunn Shi and his group from Guangxi University in China had produced three cloned buffaloes in 2004 and 2005. "These were derived from either adult granulosa cells or fetal fibroblast. The scientific paper was published in the journal Biology of Reproduction1 in 2007," Shi said in an e-mail to Nature India. Shi's group is from the Animal Reproduction Institute, Guangxi Key Laboratory of Subtropical Bioresource Conservation and Utilization of the Guangxi University in Nanning.
Earlier this month, the Indian media was full of stories about the world's first buffalo clone dying at NDRI five days after its birth,2,3 . This followed a press statement by NDRI which claimed that the calf was the world's first cloned buffalo4.
In response to NDRI's claim, Shi said," I do not think that cloned baffalo by NDRI is the world's first buffalo clone although there is a technical difference — it is handmade in case of NDRI and miromanipulation in our case." Shi's buffalo clones are still alive and growing well in his university.
NDRI now concedes that the Chinese claim is indeed correct. "They have produced the first live progeny through traditional cloning using complicated equipment such as micromanipulators and tool making equipment," Suresh Kumar Singla, principal scientist in charge of the cloning project told Nature India. He emphasised that the NDRI team has produced the 'first buffalo cloned calf using a very simplified method of cloning — the hand-guided cloning technique — without the use of complicated equipment and requiring very less skills', a point mentioned in NDRI's press statement but only after a screaming headline: "World's first cloned buffalo calf born" and some more misleading text. The buffalo clone died five days after its birth.
Singla clarified that the NDRI team had even quoted the Chinese work in their recent research papers,5,6 . "Our buffalo calf was born through a simplified technique. This is what we have claimed in our research paper as well as in the press," he said. The popular press, however, had latched on to the far more entycing headline and text confirming that it was the world's first cloned buffalo without getting into the nitty gritty of which scientific works they had quoted in the paper.
In an e-mail, Singla further explained the process. "Globally, cloning started with the use of embryo cells (blastomere) since before Dolly it was assumed that only embryo cells can produce clones. We initiated our work between 1993-1996 using blastomere cells but could not transfer the embryos. After Dolly, everybody shifted to somatic cell cloning. Still the methods were as complicated as before and that's what we are referring to as traditional cloning."
The team also worked with this method but could not produce embryos. "Then everybody thought that there is practically very little progress and we need to simplify the procedures. This new hand guided technique needs only a zoom stereo microscope and one electroporation equipment. Micromanipulators and other tools are not required," he added.
Shi's team is now cloning river buffalos by trasferring river buffalo donor cells into swamp buffalo oocytes. The project is supported by the Chinese government. "Six of the recipients became pregnant, but four aborted after three months, one after 215 days and one after 305 days of gestation. We are now concentrating on transgenic cloning of buffalo, cattle and rabbit," he said.
Embryologists are not taking the NDRI faux pas lightly. Neerja Wadhwa of the Embryo Biotechnology Lab at National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi says the NDRI claim came as a big surprise to her community. "I was really taken aback by what they were claiming since I knew of the Chinese team's work. It is indeed sad that a laboratory under the ICAR should make such an irresponsible statement without being doubly sure of what they were telling the world," she said.