Scientists have created Australia's first cloned and genetically modified (GM) calves, putting the major dairy exporter on the path to becoming a commercial producer of GM milk.
The United States, Europe and New Zealand are already cloning and genetically modifying cattle as scientists push toward revolutionising the world dairy market."It's a pretty exciting step forward for us," Ian Lewis, co-ordinator for the project, told Reuters.
The team that produced the four GM cloned female calves, each with an additional fifth gene for milk protein production, was also responsible for Australia's first cloned cows and bull.
The main aim is to produce more nutritious dairy products, and the births put Australia's A$3 billion (€1.8 bn) a year dairy export industry on an equal footing with other countries moving toward eventual commercial production of GM dairy products, Lewis said.
Holly the Holstein and her sisters Molly, Lolly and Jolly were born in January and February as a result of collaborative research by the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development, the Victorian Institute of Animal Science and artificial insemination firm Genetics Australia.
The technique involved extracting a bovine protein gene from a cow's cell, inserting it into a cloned embryo in the laboratory, then implanting the embryo into a surrogate mother cow. More GM calves are expected to be produced later this year.
"It brings the possibilities (of commercial production)... an important step closer," said Rob Morton of the Dairy Research and Development Corp, which funded most of the project.
Holly and Molly are twins born from the same surrogate on 7 January. Lolly and Jolly were born about seven weeks later and are genetically identical to the first two.
Lewis said commercial production of GM drinking milk in Australia was still seven to ten years away, although production of modified milk containing genetically-produced human medicines and vaccines could be as close as five years away.
The same cloning and gene-inserting technology could be used to produce medicines and vaccines at a fraction of the cost of current pharmaceutical production, Lewis said.
GM milk could be produced containing medicines to help combat the bleeding disease haemophilia, cystic fibrosis which causes breathing disorders, components for use with blood transfusions, and many other medicines, he said.
Anti-GM activists oppose the project."They're showing the successes to the public but they don't show all of the failures," Arnold Ward of GeneEthics Network told Reuters. "Its an awful waste of animal life... It obviously wasn't meant to be done by nature itself."
"It's not necessarily in the public interest until we see what products are produced," said Bob Phelps of the same group.