Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Genome Editing Cows, Pigs, Salmon--and the Platypus?

Before digging into discussions about genome editing of farm animals, consider the duck-billed platypus. I lived in Australia for four years, and I’m still not sure if it is a mammal, a bird, or one of J. K. Rowling’s fantastic beasts. The monotreme has a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail, and an otter’s feet. It lays eggs, uses electroreception to locate food, and has ankle spurs that can deliver a toxic poison. The evolutionary planning committee for the platypus must have been in its “outside the box” mode the day it conjured up this one.

Now scientists can apply powerful new tools that have the potential to revolutionize agricultural practices and food production. Amazing advances in genome editing mean that we can breed hornless cattle, fast-growing salmon, and pigs that might resist diseases. Some scientists, organizations, and members of the public urge caution, and government agencies are debating what types of regulations should apply. The following links are just a few of the many articles and research papers that deal with this important topic:

*** The United States joined with 12 other nations to support policies that enable agricultural innovation, including genome editing.

*** Dan Carlson of Recombinetics uses genome editing techniques with cows, and he explains why he feels confident about the safety of the food they produce. Jennifer Kuzma of NC-State is also an expert about the potential of genome editing, but she notes that there needs to be a broad conversation about the underlying genetics.

*** Kuzma was involved with the CAST publication led by Adam Bogdanove of Cornell University titled Genome Editing in Agriculture: Methods, Applications, and Governance. The peer-reviewed paper looks at how genome editing is performed and the current state of regulations. 

Alison Van Eenennaam at the UC-Davis Cattle Facility
*** Maybe the most active proponent regarding animal biotech is Alison Van Eenennaam of UC-Davis. She believes that some regulations can protect food safety, but she also argues that current FDA policies restrict technologies that could make agriculture more efficient by reducing the environmental footprint of food production. Van Eenennaam was the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner, and she chaired the ground-breaking CAST Commentary The Science and Regulation of Food from Genetically Engineered Animals.

Science has been affecting livestock for a long time. When I was growing up on a farm, selective breeding was common, and artificial insemination was the buzz. We kids just saw our livestock as steers we had to feed and pigs that produced manure we had to pitch. The only biotech creature we had were bullheads we occasionally caught in the pasture creek. A sinister-looking, oily skinned fish with beady eyes, it has stingers that we were convinced would paralyze us. Of course, that was a childhood myth, but we had to fantasize with what we had. After all, no duck-billed platypus swam the streams of Iowa. I guess we’ll see what animals inhabit the feedlots of our future. 

by dan gogerty (top pic from and bottom from kpeterson)

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