Science or sci-fi? A research company wants to alter animals by adding and subtracting genetic traits in a lab. The results could produce cows that tolerate high heat and calves without horns. Recombinetics, Inc., sees big opportunities in the farming industry.
To make the technology appealing—and ease fears that researchers are creating Franken-animals—Recombinetics is introducing gene-edited traits as a way to ease animal suffering. “It’s a better story to tell,” admits Tammy Lee, company CEO.
For example, animal welfare advocates have long criticized how farmers use caustic paste (acid) or hot irons to dehorn dairy cows so the animals don’t harm each other. Recombinetics simply snips out the horn gene, and voila! the procedure is unnecessary.
Last year, a bull gene-edited by Recombinetics to be hornless sired several offspring. All were born hornless.
Recombinetics and others say gene-editing techniques do what traditional breeding has always done, except much faster and with the precision of “molecular scissors.” Once gene-editing is accepted, Lee predicts farmers will be more interested in traits that step-up productivity.
A study this summer found 43% of Americans supported genetically engineered animals for more nutritious meat. But before food from gene-edited animals can land on dinner tables, Recombinetics has to overcome people’s concerns about possible side effects and scientists’ “playing God.” After all, many believe, the all-wise God created each animal with the traits He knew it needed. Support for gene editing will probably depend on how the technology is used—for animal welfare, increased production, or disease resistance.
Josh Balk, a Humane Society executive, points out, “If you edit for your chicken to be the size of an elephant, that’s not good.”
(Animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam points to a group of dairy calves that won’t have to be de-horned thanks to gene editing. AP Photo)