Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Shortly before I was born, my dad and uncle inherited our family farm from their father, and did their best to transform it from the mom and pop operation created by my grandparents to a state-of the-art-dairy operation.

They soon learned that the only way to succeed was to improve the characteristics of the herd.

My grandfather left his sons with a small herd of what commonly are known as "grade" Holstein cattle.

There was nothing spectacular about these animals. They didn't excel in milk production. Nor did their offspring.

And the progeny of the herd, my dad and uncle knew, would be of little interest to anyone who was seriously interested in raising dairy cattle.

They decided to do something about it. Neither had gone to college � they had no degrees in dairy science or animal husbandry � but they read every dairy publication they could get their hands on in hopes of finding information that would help them boost the productivity of their mediocre herd.

It didn't take them long to realize they had to improve the bloodlines of their cattle.

And the key to doing that was through the magic of genetics.

They began by culling grade cattle from the herd, when they could afford it, and replacing them with registered cattle.

Registered cattle, simply put, have papers. They have a distinct pedigree that identifies their sires, dams and the general strengths and weaknesses of their "families."

They bought expensive registered breeding bulls so they could begin producing their own "purebred" registered dairy cattle.

Other techniques also paid off. Artificial insemination, they discovered, provided endless opportunities to improve the genetic characteristics of the herd.

By the time I was in high school, they had produced some of the best dairy cattle in South Dakota. Thanks to some high tech wizardry, they learned how to stretch the strong hereditary traits of the cows to the fullest.

My dad and uncle shipped their best cattle to veterinarians who specialized in boosting reproduction. They would flush eggs from the cows, artificially inseminate them, and transplant the fertilized eggs into host cows.

There were times when one of our cows had four calves born just a few weeks from each other, thanks to this method.

This use of science and technology was fascinating, and highly productive. I also believe my dad and uncle highly endorsed these practices because the science involved merely improved the natural, vital practice of reproduction.

If my dad and uncle were still living, I suspect they would say cloning is a completely different story.

And I believe if they were offered the opportunity to clone their best cattle, they would refuse.

My dad and uncle recognized that their methods of breeding cattle (the way nature intended) did nothing to reduce the variety and diversity of the herd's offspring.

Cloning at its simplest would mean improving the herd using a very narrow genetic blueprint. Cloning eliminates nature's system of boundless possibilities through diversification.

I also believe they didn't need a geneticist or ethicist to tell them that two creatures that are identical genetically won't be "alike."

They simply had to look at my older brother and me.

We're twins. And we're really not "alike" at all.

A couple years ago, when Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was born, some scientists hailed the event as a major breakthrough for research in agriculture, aging, medicine and genetics.

Others worried what it may portend. If sheep can be replicated, they asked, are humans far behind?

According to the news this week, a human clone infant is already among us, and several others will be born soon.

While the prospects of cloning for non-reproductive purposes may open exciting possibilities, cloning to try to create duplicates of ourselves brings with it some terrifying prospects.

Is cloning's goal only to produce geniuses or top athletes, or top musicians? If something goes wrong, are we willing to accept the costs of so-called bad copies? What about failed experiments?

These are horrific issues. There's a moral chasm between our technological abilities at this point and the public understanding of not only the science but also the ethics of cloning.

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