Editing for Health and Fitness

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

Gene editing shows considerable potential for improving animal health and welfare and food safety while reducing dependence on antimicrobials and other treatments for livestock diseases. The industry must, however, engage and educate consumers to avoid misconceptions and backlash against a relatively new and difficult-to-understand technology.

While research remains in its early stages, scientists already have announced significant breakthroughs in applying gene editing to livestock breeding. Recently, researchers at the University of Missouri, in collaboration with Kansas State University and genetics company Genus plc, announced they used gene-editing technology to produce a litter of pigs with genetic resistance to Transmissible Gastroenteritis Virus (TGEV). The virus commonly infects the intestines of young pigs, causing almost 100 percent mortality.

Previous research identified an enzyme known as ANPEP that likely serves as a receptor for the TGEV virus, and the researchers used gene editing to create a “null” version of the gene that regulates ANPEP production. This resulted in a litter of pigs that did not become infected when challenged with the TGEV virus.

Back in 2015, some of the same group of researchers identified a protein designated CD163, which apparently plays a role in activating the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus in pigs. PRRS, for which there is no effective vaccine, costs North American farmers more than $660 million annually according to research reports. Similar to the more recent study, the researchers edited the gene that regulates production of the CD163 protein, and produced a litter of pigs that demonstrated resistance to the PRRS virus.

While research continues, Genus, plc is working toward commercialization of the gene-editing techniques for disease resistance in pigs.

We know from past experience that consumers, and thus food companies, tend to resist complex technologies when applied to food production, as demonstrated by the preponderance of “GMO-Free” label claims on food products. Consumers here and internationally remain skeptical about genetic engineering in plants and animals, in spite of a lack of evidence showing any threat to human or animal health.

Gene editing, however, differs from the genetic engineering methods used to produce “GMO” plants or animals. While genetic engineering typically uses genetic material from other species to introduce novel and beneficial traits to an organism, gene editing works with the organism’s existing, natural genome. The technology essentially turns on or turns off the function of specific genes to influence a selected trait. In essence, the technology achieves the same goals as conventional selection-based plant or animal breeding, but instead of taking years and multiple generations of crossing and back-crossing, scientists can potentially achieve their genetic goal in a single generation.

It’s a biological shortcut. A cow or pig with genetic resistance to disease acquired through gene editing is all cow or all pig, with DNA borrowed from neither fish nor fowl, nor plant nor insect.

Within the new frontiers of biology, scientists are exploring multiple technologies for genetic progress, such as using genomic data as a tool to augment conventional breeding systems. Gene editing is another tool, potentially an extremely powerful tool, for accelerating propagation of desirable traits in crops and food animals.

The agricultural community needs though, to get ahead of the issue and preempt any backlash from anti-technology activists or consumers. They’ll need reassurance that scientists and regulatory agencies have verified the safety of gene editing in food production, along with documentation of the benefits.

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