Genetically Modified Animals Will Be on Your Plate in No Time

Production At A Kawashima Dairy Farm

A cow stands in a yard at a Kawashima Dairy Farm in Chiyoda, Gunma Prefecture, Japan

NO ONE EATS genetically modified animals. That is to say, human beings have modified almost every domesticated foodstuff, plant, and animal through traditional breeding techniques. But start using genetic engineering technology, moving genes around or inserting one from one living thing into another, and people freak right the hell out. That’s what happened two weeks ago – France went into a panic because a lamb that was the offspring of a sheep modified to express a green fluorescent protein made it to market. In Europe, genetically modified organisms are outright banned; in the US, lots of staple crops like corn have plenty of modified genes. But animals? That’s a line supermarkets haven’t crossed.

They could, though. The fact is, biologists have been tinkering with animal genomes for a couple decades, working on increasing muscle mass (that’s meat, after all), speeding up growth rates, and otherwise overclocking the kind of traits that the food business values. Now, no genetically engineered animals are approved for human consumption. The Food and Drug Administration regulates them as animal drugs – that is, medicine for animals, rather than food. So they have to go through a testing process so rigorous that it’s too expensive for them to be viable commercially. But they exist. And they’re actually…kind of cool.

Super Muscular Pigs

In an article published in Nature last Tuesday, Jin-Soo Kim, a molecular biologist at Seoul National University, showed off pictures of hogs with extraordinarily large backsides. (That’s a part that pork-eaters particularly value, just in case you don’t dig on swine.) Kim’s team, from Korea and China, looked at a mutation in a super-jacked variety of cattle called the Belgian Blue; a gene that ordinarily inhibits muscle growth gets switched off. Using a gene-editing technique called TALEN, the researchers induced a similar mutation in their pigs. Result: porkier Porky.

Breeders probably could have arrived at the same result – hey, it worked for Belgian Blues. But the genetic modification saved what might have been years of work. Whether it’ll sell is another matter. Kim and his team want to sell edited pig sperm in China, which is investing heavily in gene editing and historically hasn’t been strict on regulation. Also, because the genetic modification involves a knocking out a single gene rather than transplanting one from a completely different animal, the scientists are hoping that their modified sperm will get approved more quickly. But bigger pigs isn’t always better—the sows can have challenges birthing baby piglets because their extra muscle makes them so bulky.

Chance of you eating one in the next five years: High

Growth-spurty Salmon

Canadian scientists first developed fast-growing salmon in 1989, and the breed developed by Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty has been stuck in the FDA’s regulatory approval process since 1995. These Atlantic salmon have genes from a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout – a type of eel – that make more than the usual dose of growth hormone, so they reach market size in 16 to 18 months instead of the salmon-standard three years.

Commercializing this fish has been slow-going: The FDA actually declared AquaBounty salmon safe to eat in 2010, and the company promised to breed only sterile female fish – that way if any of them jumped into the wild they wouldn’t be able to spread their mutant genes. That didn’t hold any water with Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, which declared that they wouldn’t sell the fish. By 2012, AquaBounty was reportedly running out of money and in the hands of an investor from Georgia (the country, not the state).

Chance of you eating one in the next five years: Medium

Hornless Cattle

Ranchers typically de-horn cattle when they’re calves to make them less likely to injure other animals or the people who handle them. It’s a painful, traumatic process. Scientists had bred hornless beef cattle without horns, but the same approach in dairy cows seemed to reduce milk production. In 2013, Minnesota-based Recombinetics used TALEN to insert a gene from a hornless Angus into Holsteins, a classic dairy breed. Recombinetics got the horns to go away, but the cows still can’t produce milk.

Chance of you drinking milk from one in the next five years: Low

Hypoallergenic Cows

Something like two or three percent of all human infants are allergic to milk, and at least some of them trace that allergy to one specific protein. In 2012, a New Zealand government-owned science company, AgResearch, engineered a cow named Daisy to produce milk without that protein. Using a technique called RNA interference, they knocked out the gene that makes the protein without altering milk production. It’s a cool example of how we can alter nutritional content of food through gene editing, although Daisy was just a proof of concept, and the milk is still a long way from market, undergoing the long testing process and the scrutiny of protective parents. No word from AgResearch on how testing is going.

Chance of you drinking milk from one in the next five years: Low

Article Credit: Wired Magazine