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Gene Editing in Animals a Reality

Animals hit health news heavily this week with the reveal of two, genetically altered calves born last spring that are born without horns. The idea behind this innovation was to prevent the very painful, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, process of dehorning, a procedure that removes the horns of calves to prevent injuries in the pasture later in life for these animals. According to the New York Times, the genetic alteration, performed by a scientists at the start-up company Recombinetics, removes the portion of genetic code that makes calves grow horns and swaps it for the portion of genetic code that makes Angus cows have none.

This prolific movement in editing an animal’s genes for preventative measures as well as personal, more aesthetic pleasures has caused some controversy in the ethical dilemma concerning the modification of human embryos to fit our liking. The intention is key here: are we modifying to prevent diseases or to choose eye color for our future children? And what are the implications of genetic alteration? These questions may be on the back burner while genetic editing in animal production now has some FDA backing.

The FDA just gave its seal of approval for genetically altered salmon, where the fish now grows faster, for human consumption. These salmon, along with genetically modified mosquitoes that will no longer be able to carry malaria, show that this editing technique is widely being used because it is easy, according to Bruce Whitelaw, a professor of animal biotechnology at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. Using an enzyme that are directly targeted at a specific gene splice can alter that animal’s genetic profile and easily spread the gene sequence through conventional breeding.

But when will it be enough? Many consumers are concerned about the potential side effects of consuming genetically modified animals, much like the controversy and now regulation of foods with GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) found in corn and soy.

What this boils down to is cost and ethics. On one side of the issue, this research is helping farmers bypass the cruelty of dehorning calves to prevent livestock devastation but also preserve a livestock that will subsequently bring more money to the intended dairy industry. But do we consume genetically modified animals? Chickens that produce more protein with less feed and pigs that resist swine fever thus eliminating a disease that would devastate that particular faction of animal could become commonplace sooner than we think.

Research is important and desperately needed in order to improve quality of life. What is even more important is to know the ethics behind the research and its intentions. In any case, this article proves to be incredibly interesting in the scientific research realm and we will be sure to see how these calves are doing once studied at the University of California, Davis.