Helping farm animals have babies efficiently and at the least cost to livestock producers has been the overall goal of the LSU Agricultural Center’s reproductive physiology research program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
But along the way, this research program, established in 1973 under the direction of Robert Godke, has gained worldwide recognition for its contributions to the development of assisted reproductive techniques.
“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. Newer 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 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, using this technique.
One of the newest assisted reproduction procedures is called ICSI, or 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 fecting 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 theses or Ph.D. dissertations over the last 25 years.
“Some of our students did both their master’s and Ph.D. research in our program,” said Godke, who in 1995 was named an LSU Boyd professor, a recognition of teaching and research excellence.
He attributes his program’s success to the dedication of the students, who have come from all over the world.
“The program is hard. I knew if I could survive it, I could survive anything. I gained confidence,” said Lilly Zhang, originally from China who came from Cornell University in New York to study with 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, La.
Linda Foster Benedict
(This article was published in the winter 1999 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)