Aspen always was a cow town
August 6, 2002
Aspen the cow and Aspen the resort have a lot in common.
They both are famous. They both were once big producers. They both have a place in history. And now people keep trying to clone them.
But while there is still only one Aspen, Colo., there are now five cows exactly like Aspen the cow.
Scientists at the University of Connecticut were the first to clone an adult cow from non-reproductive cells. And that history-making cow happened to be a prize Holstein named Aspen.
It’s not clear if the cow was named for the ski resort. Noel Miller, the lead worker in the UConn dairy barn, said Aspen was probably named by a student 17 years ago.
“She was born from a cow named Yukon W. Cleo,” Miller said. “She didn’t even follow the system. She should have been a ‘C’ name. I don’t remember her being born, but if a student wants to name it, they will suggest a name.”
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And whether it was an intentional reference to the resort or not, the name seems to fit.
“She was almost perfect in body structure,” said Dr. Cindy Tian, a developmental geneticist at UConn. “At a dairy show, she was given the score of 98 out of 100. She was a dairy queen, her body structure was so good.”
And Aspen was an outstanding milker, even with a slight handicap.
“She was a three-titter at the time,” said Miller. “She lost one in a freak accident.”
But she still put out close to 12 gallons a day – at least twice as much as a regular cow.
“She was much higher than average,” said Tian. “The reason she was cloned was because she was such a high producer.”
Tian works at UConn with her husband, Dr. Jerry Yang, who is director of the school’s Center of Regenerative Biology and the man credited with first cloning Aspen on June 10, 1999.
And it was quite a feat. Aspen was the first adult animal in the world to produce a clone from “body” cells instead of reproductive cells.
In the process, genetic material from one of Aspen’s ear cells was injected into an egg cell from another cow. The receiving cell had its original DNA taken out and added nothing to Aspen’s genetic material.
A jolt of electricity in the lab then got the growth process going, and the egg cell formed into a embryo, which was then implanted into a surrogate mother.
And out came a new Aspen. And then, after the process was repeated, out came more Aspens.
“We cloned a total of 10 just like Aspen,” said Tian.
But only four clones lived. The others died, mainly from lung problems.
“That’s the problem with cloning,” said Tian. “People haven’t found the ideal conditions for it yet.”
The four surviving Aspen clones are named Amy, Betty, Cathy and Daisy, as in the alphabet. Yet they are all still “Aspen.”
“They will always be Aspen,” said Tian, who wasn’t sure if Dr. Yang was open to suggestions for names of other clones, such as, say, Snowmass, when he gets to the “S” names.
But one thing is for sure, Aspen’s clones are just like their “mom.”
“They have the same markings,” said Miller, who cares for the cows. “They have the same disposition. They are a little headstrong. They know they are important.”
And now each of the clones has given birth through natural reproduction and is lactating normally.
And more Aspen clones are heading to Taiwan and China, where they will likely end up part of a farmer’s herd.
“The animals here are kept in biological study areas,” said Tian. “But once they are producing in other places, they are not for studies; they are for production.”
Today, no U.S. law prevents cloned cow milk from being sold, but UConn is studying the milk from the clones and then sending it down the drain.
“We are doing lots of studies to make people feel better about using dairy products from cloned animals,” said Tian. “But I really don’t see the difference. They are just clones from a naturally produced animal. If the donor animal is normal, the clone should be just the same as the donor.”
Today, Aspen the donor cow is living the good life. She’s long outlived her peers and is treated with respect in the dairy barn.
“She’s got the life of luxury,” said Miller. “She’s got three square meals and doesn’t need to do anything. She’s spoiled rotten. And she’s famous.”
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]