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.