Preserving camels with science

To prevent viruses from threatening the animals, a local research centre’s recent discovery suggests that it is poised to establish a DNA bank through the use of cryogenic conservancy of camel embryo.

Dr Lulu Skidmore of the Camel Reproduction Centre seeks to lift the fertility rate of frozen embryos. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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DUBAI // A recent discovery at the Camel Reproduction Centre could pave the way to building a successful DNA bank for the species.

Since it opened in 1989, under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the centre has regularly attracted worldwide attention for its pioneering and often sensational scientific work.

In 1998, the centre’s team, led by scientific director Dr Lulu Skidmore, successfully cross-bred a camel and a llama to create a hybrid they called “cama”.

Rama, as the cama calf was called, was born on a full moon during Ramadan. Researchers called its birth “a 30-million-year miracle”.

“When the first successful hybrid was born in 1998 I couldn’t believe it. For two months there would be two or three sessions of camera people coming every day,” said Muqtadar Billah, a facility manager who has worked at the centre for 27 years.

Textile companies inundated the centre with requests for samples of cama wool.

“They wanted 20 kilograms. I said the animal doesn’t even weigh 20kg,” said Dr Skidmore.

Because camas were not fertile and required a lot of resources to breed, the project was abandoned.

Rama lived for about 14 years. Its preserved body is now a fixture in the hallway of the centre’s laboratory as a reminder of its early achievements.

Two surviving camas, and their llama mothers, are being cared for at the centre.

“We had other priorities, so we just sort of said: ‘We’ve been there, done that, shown that it can be done’. But then other priorities became more important,” said Dr Skidmore.

A few years after the births of the cama hybrids, the centre again became the centre of worldwide media attention.

Together with reproductive biologist Dr Nisar Wani, who was the head of research at the time, the centre succeeded in cloning a camel for the first time.

Unlike the camas, the cloned camel, Injaz, was fertile and reproduced.

The birth of the cloned camel came a year after the centre pioneered a major scientific breakthrough by splitting an embryo into two and successfully inseminating two surrogate animals, who each conceived the first identical twin camels, Zahi and Bahi.

Camels do not usually carry twins to full term, so by artificially breeding the genetically identical camels, scientists could conduct nature-versus-nurture experiments to increase knowledge about the species.

But as the success rate of breeding twins was low, Dr Skidmore and her team decided to return their attention to the centre’s original mandate.

“To further research into camel reproduction physiology – there’s so much still to do,” said Dr Skidmore.

As pioneers in embryo transfer technology, Dr Skidmore and her team have achieved commercial success through working with private owners of racing camels who want to reproduce their strongest animals by using a surrogate. The centre achieves a pregnancy success rate of about 65 to 70 per cent through transfers of embryo from the donor camel to the surrogate.

The challenge now is to increase the rate of fertility by using frozen embryo or semen.

Dr Muren Herrid, head of the centre’s cell biology laboratory that specialises in freezing embryo and cell culture, says the threat of potentially deadly viruses has led to an “urgent need” to establish a DNA bank system for camels.

“You have to have a gene bank or technology established to preserve this animal,” he said.

A recent discovery at the centre may not have made global headlines, but may signal a breakthrough in the cryogenic preservation of camel embryo that may be the first step towards creating a successful DNA bank.

Dr Herrid found that a sucrose that is widely used in the preservation of human, sheep and cattle embryos is toxic for camels.

“Since then, we changed our protocols and we got the two pregnancies,” he said. “That is a big observation.

“We’re getting what looks like really good embryos after thawing. It’s exciting to know that we got two. It’s a start,” said Dr Skidmore.