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Wolf Prize In Agriculture Awarded To UW-Madison’s First

University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist Neal L. First, a pioneer in the field of reproductive physiology, has been named the recipient of the 1997 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, the world”s most prestigious award for agricultural research.

First”s selection for what some call the Nobel Prize of agriculture and its $100,000 award was announced yesterday (Nov. 12) in Israel by the Wolf Foundation.

First, who has been on the UW-Madison faculty in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences since 1960, was cited for the development of systems of bovine embryo cloning, gene transfer and in-vitro production of livestock embryos.

The animal biotechnology work of First and others promises to transform the barnyard, paving the way for the vastly more efficient production of cattle as well as the development of animal superstrains, from lean beef cattle to cows and goats that produce lifesaving drugs in their milk.

In 1987, First proved that cattle could be cloned when Fusion and Copy, the first cloned cattle in the world, were born on the Madison campus. Genetic carbon copies, the calves illustrated the potential of harnessing the tools of modern biology to produce custom-built herds of superior livestock.

The promise of the advances made by First is enormous. In the United States alone, the livestock industry, both dairy and beef, is a more than $50 billion-a-year enterprise. The ability to breed “superlivestock,” custom-designed to meet the needs and interests of consumers and producers alike, would revolutionize the industry.

The most pervasive commercial application of the work performed by First is of in-vitro fertilization technology, work that has had significant impacts for humans as well as cattle. The techniques pioneered in First”s lab are now common procedures in human in-vitro fertilization clinics and in companies that specialize in such techniques for cattle.

Applied to cattle, the techniques developed at UW-Madison allow the recovery of eggs from high-quality cows. The eggs are then fertilized and implanted in surrogate mother cows.

The technology, said First, means that a single cow can produce as many as 50 offspring in a year.

It means the top-end cows are being used more” and are producing more calves annually than they would otherwise produce in a lifetime, he said.

First credited colleagues, many of whom are now carrying out similar work in other labs at universities and in industry, for much of his success. He also credited the W.R. Grace Company and American Breeders Service of DeForest, Wis., for funding his work at a time when government support was unavailable.

A lot of people were involved,” First said. “It wasn”t just me doing all this work.”

Since 1978, the Israel-based Wolf Foundation has awarded prizes annually to individuals who have made fundamental contributions in the fields of chemistry, medicine, mathematics, physics, arts and agriculture.

First is the fourth UW-Madison scientist to receive the $100,000 prize in agriculture. Previously, UW-Madison scientists John C. Walker, Henry Lardy, and Robert Burris were recipients of the prestigious award.