LSU Ag Center Program Focuses On Helping Animals Reproduce; Graduates Assist Humans, As Well

November 30, 1998

The Louisiana State University Agricultural Center's reproductive physiology research program started with one main focus -- helping farm animals have babies efficiently and at the least cost to livestock producers.

But along the way, this research program, which was established in 1973 under the direction of Dr. Robert Godke, has gained a worldwide reputation for its contributions to the development of assisted reproductive techniques. And some of its graduates now are assisting humans, as well.

"The picture was very different 25 years ago than it is today," Godke said. "We had artificial insemination as a tool and were beginning work with embryo transfer."

Today, both artificial insemination and embryo transfer are widely used throughout the world. New tools include cryopreservation, which means freezing embryos for later use, and in vitro fertilization, which means fertilization in a test tube or on a dish under a microscope.

Godke and his graduate students have played a major role in bringing about the practical use of all of these techniques. In the mid-1970s, his program, along with others, helped perfect non-surgical techniques for transferring embryos into surrogate mothers. Their original work was with cattle, but they have since developed procedures for sheep, goats, pigs and, most recently, horses.

Another milestone for the program was with embryo splitting, which produces genetically identical twin animals from a single embryo. In 1982, researchers in the program produced their first sets of identical twin calves, or clones, from this technique.

One of the newest assisted reproduction procedures is called ICSI, which stands for intracytoplasmic sperm injection. With this approach, a tiny pipette is used under a microscope to inject a sperm into an egg, or oocyte.

One of Godke's Ph.D. students, Richard Cochran, worked for two years perfecting a way to do ICSI in horses. He had his first success this past July with the birth of a foal. The birth was a milestone because he had non-surgically extracted the oocytes from a live mare and then used ICSI to create viable embryos that were then implanted in surrogate mares.

"Horses are more of a challenge for assisted reproductive techniques than other animals, such as cattle and sheep," Cochran said. "The biological makeup of horses makes all of the procedures more difficult."

Cochran is one of a dozen graduate students studying under Godke. His program has produced 51 master's degree theses or doctoral degree dissertations over the past 25 years.

"Some of our students did both their master's and Ph.D. research in our LSU program," said Godke, who in 1995 was named an LSU Boyd professor, the highest honor given a professor on the LSU campus, and a recognition of teaching and research achievements.

He attributes his program's success to the dedication of the students, who have come from all over the world to study in the LSU graduate program.

"The program is hard. I knew if I could survive it, I could survive anything. I gained confidence," said Dr. Lilly Zhang, originally from China who came from Cornell University in New York to study under Godke and is now laboratory director of a human infertility clinic in Dallas, Texas.

She is an example of graduates working with humans instead of farm animals.

"Many of the techniques I learned in working with animals also apply to humans," said Kim Morgan, who earned her master's degree in the program and is now an embryologist at Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge.

Some of the graduates work with "exotic" animals. Dr. Bill Swanson, who was a veterinarian in Texas before completing his Ph.D. with Godke, wanted to work with endangered cat species. He is now director of endangered cat research with the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio.

"We use these same assisted reproductive techniques developed for farm animals with exotic animals. This is a way to keep endangered species from becoming extinct," he said.

Two years ago some of Godke's students started working with the Audubon Center for Research on Endangered Species (ACRES) research group in New Orleans. One of their goals is to learn ways to use more common animals as surrogate mothers for endangered species.

"This provides another opportunity for the students," Godke said. "We can learn from the scientists at ACRES, and we all gain from the process. "We can also share equipment, some of which is pretty expensive. This avoids duplication. We can work together for our mutual benefit."
Robert Godke at 225-388-3444 or
Linda Foster Benedict at 225-388-2263 or

Louisiana State University Agricultural Center

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