After seen being cradled by Omar Abdullah in March 2012, the cloned Pashmina goat Noori went out of sight instantly. Four years later, Noori is now mother of two kids besides an inspiration for Kashmiri scientists to push the envelope further, reports Shakir Mir
Dr Riaz Shah is among the most accomplished scientists at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry, SKUAST-K. At 45, he can walk with aplomb. Having led a team of experts who successfully produced first cloned Pashmina goat in March 2012, Dr Riaz catapulted Kashmir straight into the international limelight.
As a doctoral student at National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) in Karnal, Riaz had invested painstaking efforts and expertise in developing the first Buffalo clone Garima many years ago. It was for the first time he switched to comparatively easier and cost-effective technique; different from the one utilized to produce Dolly, world’s first cloned sheep in 1996.
Buoyed by the success, Dr Riaz submitted a proposal jointly with the NDRI to the government of India. He hoped securing assistance for furthering research in Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, a key technique that later went on to make the project Noori happen.
“While NDRI continued to carry out its research on Buffaloes, we zeroed in on a different species,” Dr Riaz says. Their reasons to choose a Pashmina goat over other animals for research purposes were profound. “It is of our native place,” he says. “It has a tremendous economic importance.”
Pashmina goats are exclusive to Ladakh region. They are found at an altitude of above 10,000 meters thriving in cold and arid conditions. It is precisely from their breathtaking feature, meant to stave off harsh winter, that we get Pashmina wool, a soft, delicate fiber worth fortunes in the market.
The goat grows its undercoat months before the winters start drawing nearer. Rearers comb its wooly coat to extract the prized fiber. With just Rs two crore disbursed into his kitty, it was not a cakewalk for Dr Riaz to spring Noori into existence.
“I had to grapple with a series of problems,” he explains. “The technique unlike at NDRI was not standardized here. At Karnal, they had a well feted laboratories and farms. They had the expertise as they had produced two Buffalo clones before. Things for us were not as easy as they were for them. Their work was just to multiply the animal by way of cloning. By contrast, we have to start from the scratch because we had nothing. Not even an incubator to culture the cells. We build a state of the art lab first where we could carry out an advanced research of this scale.”
His team purchased a flock of goat from Ladakh where their numbers of good quality males are believed to have been on decline. It was partly from this reason too that Pashmina goat was earmarked for research. “Cloning has this added advantage that we can have the desired gender of the clone.” Dr Riyaz says.
Subsequently, Rs 2 crore funding package for a four year period breathed a life into his project. From a sufficient amount, he erected a laboratory first before roping in a finest battery of research scholars and scientists who helped him materialize the development. In process, Riaz says, they also learned how to skillfully preserve an embryo and transfer it into recipients.
In next three years, the near-miraculous development happened. Scientists isolated an egg cell from a goat before extracting out its innards, creating space for administering the DNA, a biological rulebook, of a Pashmina goat.
Once the DNA integrated, the egg cell was rammed into skin cells of a Pashmina goat, giving rise to an embryo that would further journey towards becoming a fetus. “The new offspring was an exact duplicate of the Pashmina goat whose DNA had been extracted from its skin cell,” Riaz says. “Its coat was so lustrous that my colleague Prof Maqbool Darzi named it Noori, meaning light.”
The effort was repeated many times in the future in order to assess its efficiency but to no avail. “But we have nonetheless standardized the technique which was a major stumbling block to overcome,” he says. Dr Riaz is in want of more number of recipients and additional technical manpower. He had tried to approach for further funding. “That is still under consideration.”
When the word about Noori went out, swarm of media jostled its way in. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah cradled the newly born Noori in his bosom, attempting to fossilize the achievement because it happened during his tenure.
But three years down the line, the halo around the success of Noori faded. Media attention ceased to linger and to many minds, Noori withdrew into oblivion. Recently, Noori along with its newly born kid was put on display at SKUAST Shalimar campus during a star-studded event.
But behind the close doors, Dr Riaz is assiduously working out a new chapter in the research. The phase two of the project is likely to usher in a new era of scientific progress. The scientists are attempting to tamper with the DNA of to-be-cloned animals. The technique will enable them to reorient their genetic code, responsible for physical features, in line with their own expectations.
The transgenic animals will have capacity to deliver the way scientists want them to. “Some years ago we heard about designer babies where doctors interfere with the DNA of the new borns and make them grow as their parents wanted: particular eye color, hair color or any desired feature. In the next phase we are attempting pretty much same with the animals,” Dr Riaz says.
He hopes to incorporate some gene of a particular interest into the animals to bring about the desired features. The technique is envisaged to serve a dual applications of commercial and research purpose.
“For instance we are planning to incorporate certain genes producing blood clotting factors,” he says.
There are certain diseases where blood clotting Factors are being injected into the patients to control the blood flow. Those clotting Factors are very expensive costing about 40-50 thousand for each dose. “There are people suffering with diseases who need such medication,” he says. “People have produced such Factors in transgenic animals.”
The production cost is greater if these Factors are produced conventionally. Scientists hope to replicate that model at the Animal Biotechnology Center in SKUAST-Kashmir.
Likewise, Dr Riaz is also banking on producing hormone Insulin using the same method. Insulin is extracted from many animals through their pancreas. A very meager amount of Insulin is drawn out from dozens of pancreases. “Alternatively if we are able to introduce a gene leading towards the production of Insulin in the milk of a goat, and gene will express itself and from one liter of milk we can extract a lot of it,” he says.
If successful, the development might well result into a watershed change. Scientists at the SKUAST are also looking forward to modify the gene to accelerate the production of Pashmina. “But we need to see if the incorporated gene is expressed at first place,” he says. “If we are successful into making that happen, then we can incorporate other genes as well.”
Their first aim is to produce a transgenic goat. Towards this end, the department has submitted a proposal to the government of India three-four months back to govt of India to fund this project. They will also explore reasons for factors responsible for early embryonic death. “What happens that not all the embryos develop,” Dr Riaz says. “Early abortions take place. Once we transfer an embryo into recipient we can find as to why that happens.”
Another technique that SKUAST scientists seek to replace by augmenting the efficiency of cloning is the Artificial Insemination. “The efficiency of Artificial Insemination is around 30 per cent,” Dr Riaz says. “Out of 100 cases only 30 make it to conception.”
Artificial Insemination has its own set of downsides where the researchers get half males and half females. There is no certainty about the gender of the offspring desired to be produced. “In case of large animals like cattle, males are not usable,” Dr Riaz says. “Earlier they were used for ploughing or but now tractors. So male cattle are less preferred but to have females is important to economically viable,” he saying while trying to emphasize the need for evolving technique where gender of an offspring could be selected at whim.
“Currently, in case of cloning, efficiency is less than 5 per cent. We are aiming at increasing the efficiency of cloning process so that it replaces the Artificial Insemination,” he says.
If Riaz succeeds in increasing the efficiency of this technique more than 20 percent, there are chances that Artificial Insemination could be replaced and instead scientists can directly go for transferring of clone embryo.
“That way we can high milk yielding varieties of cows, higher in body weight and even higher Pashmina yielding goats,” he says. “Some goats produce less than 200 grams and some up to 600 grams. We can have choice to choose the second one,” he adds with a grin.