- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

CANYON, Texas (AP) - At the end of a dirt road 20 miles outside of Canyon, a stretch of the Texas Panhandle so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days, four scientists in cowboy hats and boots stand watch over a very special bull.

Alpha, a 2½-ton clone, impatiently charges at his pen. Nearby, his calves discover the energy to play as the scorched day gives way to dusk. The summer days are long here at Nance Ranch, teetering on the edge of Central time. It’s 9:30 p.m. and the sun still hasn’t set.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/29rdjos ) reports Dean Hawkins, who despite the heat is wearing his long-sleeved West Texas A&M; University shirt, leans on the paddock’s white fence as he describes his researchers’ 6-year-long quest to scientifically manufacture a more perfect steak.

“This is biotech at its best,” says Hawkins, who heads the agriculture and natural sciences school here. “At little WT, and it’s meaningful.”

Alpha was cloned in 2010 from DNA plucked from one of the most exclusive and tastiest steaks money can buy. These cattlemen scientists hope he has superior genes that can be passed onto his calves, and their calves, and so on, until someday, the highest-quality beef available can end up on your plate at a fraction of what you’d pay today.

For WT, the revenue and prestige gained from even just attempting to create a better great American steak could be priceless.

In seven days, an exclusive group of Texans will taste the first batch of results. Alpha is far too valuable to be on the menu.

On campus the next day, students are in the school’s meat lab slicing Alpha’s offspring into hamburger patties.

Dru Lust, 20, is in the meat locker, wearing an extra layer under his white lab coat. The junior, a nephew of one of the team’s lead scientists, talks excitedly about being involved in his Uncle David’s project.

“If he blows everything else out of the water, this thing will get very big, very fast,” he says, smiling under the hairnet that covers his thick, black beard. He turns back to the meat.

Alpha is a clone, a genetic twin, derived from a Prime 1 rib-eye.

If you’ve ever had a Prime 1 steak, odds are you paid a pretty penny at Al Biernat’s or Nick & Sam’s. Such beef is rich in tasty fat and replete with savory meat but lacks the inedible back fat the butcher cuts off and throws away.

Just 3 in 10,000 cows produce beef that good. Those are the same odds that a high school basketball player has of being drafted to the NBA.

“Choice” beef, the quality grade just below prime, ends up in lesser, chain steakhouses and some nicer markets. Below that is “select,” the kind of meat you probably pick up for less than $10 at your local H-E-B.

Meat from cloned animals is OK for humans to eat, the Food and Drug Administration says, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever had any because it’s far too expensive to clone an animal to make it practical to mass produce it. Plus, past polls have shown most people are wary of eating cloned animals, a stigma that has stuck around even as Americans don’t bat an eye at consuming other commonly cloned foods, such as wine from cloned grapes.

In a backroom next to the lab’s meat locker, Trent McEvers pulls out the captive bolt pistol that renders an animal unconscious before the slaughter. He teaches an animal welfare class here when he’s not helping run the lab.

“My gosh, no one wants to cause pain,” McEvers says, explaining how slaughterhouses can face fines or worse if their workers fail to render an animal unconscious the first time, every time. As for the cloning project, and any other research the school undertakes, he says, “Welfare is the No. 1 concern.”

Seven of the offspring Alpha sired hang nearby, stamped with the blue FDA choice and prime grades. McEvers spins the carcass slowly to show off the marbled fat before pointing to a literal mountain of steaks on a nearby table.

Some of them will be eaten next week by the VIPs - McEvers will swap his lab coat for a chef’s hat that day - and the rest will be grilled up and fed to other prominent donors and industry representatives over the next several months.

The public, for now, can buy only the hamburgers.

Six years ago, Ty Lawrence stood in a different slaughterhouse grading carcasses. It was late - all of his research students had already left - and he was about to clock out.

Then he stopped short. In rapid succession, Lawrence saw two of the best prime cuts he’d ever seen go by, one after another. It was like watching lightning strike the same place twice in the same night.

In that moment, his career took a sudden turn. He called up Hawkins, then Lawrence’s department head, and told him his idea.

“He wanted to clone the steer,” said Hawkins. “And I said, no, let’s clone a heifer and a steer.”

With the help of ViaGen, a Cedar Park-based company that holds the cloning patent, local rancher Jason Abraham and veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen, the team from West Texas used the same technology used to clone the world-famous Dolly the Sheep in 1996 to reverse-engineer Alpha and his female counterpart, Gamma, from two of the best steaks in the country.

By mating two cows they knew had quality meat under their hides, they hope to produce higher-quality offspring that grow faster naturally and require less energy - food, water and other resources.

In short, a cow with the fuel economy of a Prius but the looks of a Cadillac.

If this quality is due to genetics that can be passed on, Lawrence hopes a better breed of cow could result within decades, a wish even he admits is a bit out there. Until then, the team is in America’s slaughterhouses on the hunt for the next Alpha, and for now, they may soon start selling the bull’s semen and Gamma’s eggs to cattlemen as a way to boost the quality of their herds - that is, if they can prove there’s something special about them.

The basic idea isn’t unique. Breeders have been trying to breed higher quality, more efficient cows for generations, and some have used cloned bulls to do it. But the team at West Texas says they’re the first to mate two Prime 1 clones and judge the results.

Mark Westhusin, an A&M; professor who was instrumental in several cloning breakthroughs, said many scientists think breeding better cows through cloning is old hat, and too expensive, and have moved on to genetic modification in the quest to create a better steak.

“I’ll be interested to see the data, but there’s nothing really new or innovative about it,” said Westhusin, who added he wasn’t upset he didn’t know about the project because he had “bigger, better things to do.”

“Cool” was the word geneticist Darrh Bullock of the University of Kentucky used to describe the project, but he said he needed to see hard data to know whether the team at West Texas was doing something a regular breeder could not do on his own.

Such a study is coming, maybe next year. The scientists will have more data then, when they see how Alpha’s other offspring - he’s been mated with other non-clone cow populations elsewhere - stack up to those of three of the country’s top bulls.

For now, the sample size is small, but the results good, the team says.

All seven of Alpha’s calves had high choice or prime meat, with 16 percent less of that bad back fat that goes to waste. The rib-eye cuts were 9 percent bigger than an average cow - even though these were smaller when they were slaughtered - and there was a whopping 45 percent more marbling.

They didn’t get a Prime 1 calf, which Lawrence said disappointed some on the project. But they’re not done, not by a long shot.

“This is our first at bat,” said Lawrence. “We hit the ball and got more than a base hit out of it. We’ll see what will happen in our second attempt, our third attempt.”

The venue is a cordoned-off hallway at West Texas’ student union, but the tables have white tablecloths, name cards and polished silver. Salads and thick slices of cake await those who get there early, if anyone feels like spoiling their appetite before the main course.

The cattlemen scientists are almost indistinguishable from the men who played mother hen to Alpha at Nance Ranch the week before. They’ve shed their jeans and hats for suits and ties, but most still wear cowboy boots.

They don’t appear nervous as these, the first outside tasters, dig into their New York strips. Most don’t even pay attention to others’ reactions, so content with sampling the product of their years of hard work.

After the feeding, VIPs threw around words like “incredible” to describe the project - and the meat.

“It makes you flap your lips,” says Charles “Doc” Graham, the granddad of Texas agricultural veterinarians.

He said he has eaten two or three steaks a week for the past 60-odd years. How does this one stack up against those 6,500 others?

“As good as I’ve ever eaten,” he says, rocking back and forth in his alligator boots. “It’s superior. And I’ve eaten the best.”

David Lust, Dru’s uncle, who has been on the project since Alpha’s infancy, said the “tender” steak “met my expectations fully.”

So what’s the next step? How do you make it better?

“I can tell you that,” he responds, smirking. “To make that steak better, I just need my wife, candlelight, a bottle of wine and an ocean view.”

If the bars in Canyon look brand new, that’s because they are. The city was dry until late 2014, when the town’s less than 15,000 residents finally voted to end its blue laws.

(Side note: The law didn’t pass without a fight. Those who signed a petition in favor of allowing the sale of alcohol were added to a local Baptist preacher’s list of “hypocrites for booze in Canyon.”)

So there are only a few places the team can grab a cold beer to celebrate the public release of their results. They choose a sports bar called Buffalo’s - homage to West Texas’ mascot, Thunder - to relax.

A few beers later, and the cattlemen scientists joke about how they represent three generations at West Texas - Lust was Lawrence’s adviser, Lawrence was McEvers’ mentor. They tease McEvers about his weekend plans: a wedding on the lake with a dress code of red, white and blue bathing suits.

“It’s hard being a redneck. It takes work!” Hawkins chuckles over his Michelob Ultra with two limes.

But they’re rednecks in ties and sport coats, now loosened and thrown over the back of the barstools, rednecks who don lab coats to resurrect steaks, who tinker with the building blocks of life, all in the pursuit of a better steak.

Lawrence smiles, “Rednecks with Ph.D.s.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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