Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Best Conversation Topic in a While

"Cows with Guns" by Dana Lyons (as heard on Dr. Demento)

(don't forget to vote in the poll on the left)

This is an article about a fighting bull breeder who wants to clone his greatest stud, in hopes of maintaining his meal ticket -- this bull has sired a number of top bulls.

It's here, and it brought up a lot of interesting questions for my conversation class:

Is it an ethical decision, or just a financial decision for him to clone this bull? Is he playing God, or just trying to take care of his family, and his legacy for his kids?

What about if a popstar decides to get plastic surgery to increase her/his earning power/extend his/her career? Is that merely a financial decision, or are there ethics involved?

If you think it's wrong to clone a bull that breeds fighting bulls because it's playing God for the sake of an (ethically murky to begin with) entertainment spectacle, what about cloning, say, a seeing eye dog, or one of those monkeys that's been trained to find landmines? Yeah, the clone wouldn't have the skill automatically, but what if there was an especially smart seeing-eye dog or minefield monkey that took less time to train than other dogs/monkeys? Wouldn't it be our moral obligation to clone them and clear those minefields as fast as we could?

What about genetically modifying german shepherds to create seeing eye dogs that live longer?

Or making cats cuter?

If it's wrong to clone cats or genetically modify dogs, is it OK to do so with crops?

How is genetically modifying a plant different than carefully breeding it to bring out certain features -- it's just expediting the process, right?

Really interesting conversations.


Here's the article text in full:

Breeder plans to clone 'genius' fighting bull
from the International Herald Tribune
By Victoria Burnett
Published: March 24, 2008

He is a mean, magnificent beast. And during his 16-year life, Alcalde has sired scores of bulls that have proved awesome opponents for some of Spain's most celebrated bullfighters. Now, however, the splendid stud is in his twilight years, and his owner, Victoriano del Rio, has turned to science to safeguard his precious genes.

Del Rio, a fifth-generation bull breeder who sports a Barbour jacket, has decided to clone Alcalde, marrying cutting-edge genetics with one of Spain's most traditional enterprises. ViaGen, a cloning and genomics company based in Austin, Texas, will take cells from the aging bull next month in the hope of producing a double.

"This bull is a genius," said del Rio during a visit to the rolling pasture where the hulking Alcalde, or Mayor, grazed with a small herd of tan cows and calves. "If you owned a painting by Rubens, or Velázquez, you would do everything in your power to preserve it. Alcalde is my Velázquez, and I want to preserve him."

To the uninitiated, the matador is the star of the bullfight.

However, experts say a great fight is as much about the bull as it is about the man in the sparkly suit.

"The bull allows the matador to create a work of art, a beautiful dance. It's a joint performance," said Lázaro Carmona, a veedor, or inspector, who visits ranches on the matador's behalf and helps select animals for the fight. A strong, aggressive bull that runs at the matador's cape allows him to shine, he said. "I think the bull should take 90 percent of the credit for a matador's triumph."

Animal rights advocates dismiss such eulogies, saying the bull is an unwilling partner in a cruel contest that it is fated to lose.

Using cloning to produce animals that are doomed to a barbarous death adds insult to injury, said Leonardo Anselmi, president of an anti-bullfighting organization, Stop Our Shame.

"It's dangerous to put a tool like this within the reach of such ignorant people," said Anselmi, referring to breeders of fighting bulls. "Before we know it, they'll be crossing a bull with a tiger to see what new creature they can produce for their Roman circus."

Alcalde sires about 40 bulls a year, and an unusually high proportion of those turn out to be top fighters, said del Rio, who has about 400 bulls on the 485-hectare, or 1,200-acre, farm where he keeps Alcalde. The prize bull's offspring are sought by some of Spain's most famous matadors, and two of them so impressed Julián López Escobar, known as El Juli, that he had their heads mounted for display in his house, del Rio said.

Del Rio says he is motivated by curiosity and sentimentality, rather than money, in seeking to clone Alcalde, a process he expects to set him back about $50,000, including travel and transportation costs. ViaGen charges $17,500 for the first calf cloned from a cow or bull, a rate that falls progressively for further clones from the same animal. However, insuring Alcalde's bloodline could prove a worthwhile investment in an industry where the best bulls can fetch nearly $30,000.

Scientists will take the nucleus of a somatic, or nonreproductive, cell from Alcalde and insert it into an egg cell from a cow, from which the nucleus has been removed. The resulting embryo will be grown inside an incubator and then implanted in a cow to develop.

ViaGen, which has cloned cattle, horses and pigs, is in the process of trying to clone another stud for a Mexican breeder of fighting bulls, José Manuel Fernández. If all goes well, Fernández's clones will be born later this year, a few months ahead of del Rio's.

The question, geneticists and breeding experts say, is whether the clones will have the same qualities as the originals. A clone is genetically identical, but its temperament may not be, they say.

Carmona says he looks not only at physical traits, like the curve of a bull's horns or the way it gallops, but at the way the animal looks at him and what its behavior says about its "soul."

"The characteristics breeders look for in a bull, such as its strength and courage, have a lot to do with what it eats, its environment and how it is treated," said Estrella Cortés, a biologist who specializes in genetic engineering at the Open University in Madrid. Cortés said she was skeptical that del Rio's experiment would change the world of bull breeding.

It will be some time before success or failure can be determined, about six years, in fact. The clone will start to reproduce at 24 months, and its offspring will not enter the bullring until they are 3 or 4.

Del Rio recognizes his project may fail, but he says he has a penchant for experimentation. He looked into cloning Alcalde's father, Aldeano, about 10 years ago but dropped the idea because it would have cost the equivalent of $1.5 million today.

"If Victoriano succeeds, he will have discovered a new path for us breeders. But it's complicated," said Eduardo Martin-Peñato, president of the Association of Fighting Bull Breeders. "He may create an animal that is like a photograph of the original, but inside their characters could be very different. This is the great unknown."

No comments: