Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published September 30, 2013, 11:21 AM

U of M scientist edits genes of livestock

A University of Minnesota scientist has developed a technique for editing the genes of livestock.

By: Minnesota Public Radio News,

ST. PAUL — A University of Minnesota scientist has developed a technique for editing the genes of livestock.

Scott Fahrenkrug says he’s focusing in two areas — medical research and agriculture.

Gene editing can create pigs with medical conditions similar to those humans suffer, he says. One example might be a certain type of heart disease. He says he believes medical researchers will be able to test new drugs on the pigs and have a high degree of certainty the drugs will cause the same reaction in humans as in the pigs.

On the livestock front, he says he’s already produced a living cow that has 10 to 50 percent more muscle mass than its ancestors. He’s also working to produce a cow without horns. He says he should have a living, hornless cow in a year or so.

Fahrenkrug published his research earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He says gene editing makes it possible to splice a desirable genetic change into an animal without replacing an entire gene or genes.

The researcher likes to use the literary world as a comparison for what he’s doing. Consider a book containing 3 billion alphabetical letters. Then imagine changing just one of those letters, say from a “b” to a “t.” He says that’s the scale of what he’s doing. A livestock animal’s genome contains about 3 billion “letters” or bits of information. His technique can change one of those letters at a time.

“That gives us the ability to copy naturally occurring variations that are present in other breeds of livestock and bring them into the breed that we’re working with,” Fahrenkrug says.

A hornless cow would be a big advancement for dairy and beef producers, says Jim Womack, a livestock genetics professor at Texas A&M University. He says the current practice of removing a cows’ horns is dangerous for workers and painful to the animal.

“A genetic solution to dehorning is an absolutely wonderful idea and a great accomplishment,” Womack says.

The technology must meet government regulatory approval before it reaches the marketplace, a process Fahrenkrug says could take at least a couple of years.

It’s not clear what sort of opposition his gene-editing technique might face. Certain genetically modified crops, such as corn and soybeans, are in widespread use in the U.S., but many countries ban or strictly regulate imports of them.

Tags: