As the decade comes to a close, the agriculture industry is left with one big question: what should be done with gene editing?
Two of the top geneticists in the country were available to answer the question at the 2019 Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Research Symposium and Convention in Brookings, South Dakota June 19.
Mark Allan, the director of product development and genomics for Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, as well as Alison Van Eenennaam, University of California–Davis Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, came together to discuss how the beef industry will use gene editing and expanded genomics testing in the 2020s and beyond.
Allan, who focuses primarily on genetic testing, said the dairy industry can teach the beef side of the livestock world a lot about how to use data and genetics to better their animals. Over the last 50 years, the dairy herd has dramatically decreased, but milk production has increased per cow. This indirect relationship is entirely attributed to genetic selection, Allan said.
“The tools in the toolbox change and improve but we never replace a tool in the toolbox. It just keeps getting better and better while building,” he said.
Allan marked 2014 as the real rise in genotyping of cattle. In 2018, 400,000 to 500,000 dairy females were genotyped specifically to gather data on the best females to reproduce. Most dairy cows go through genetic testing and data collection before ever reaching a commercial market. That’s the inverse of the beef industry, where most seed stock producers sell directly to commercial buyers.
“We have to get to collecting more carcass data and weights in mature cows,” he said. “We can talk about and implement technologies but we have to work on the foundation.”
Dairy cattle are also leading the charge on gene editing. The first real exploration into practical gene editing has begun in dairy cattle and it started with removing horns. With DNA from an Angus cow, Van Eenannam’s team was able to genetically engineer a polled, or hornless, dairy calf, eliminating the painful dehorning process. After testing the calf through to maturity, she said she believes gene editing is the silver bullet to humane cattle handling.
As gene editing has become more newsworthy, Van Eenennaam has worked to improve the discourse on the topic rather than alienating the public.
“We’ve been doing a lot of outreach with these animals because when genetic engineering or GMOs came out, we didn’t have a good public discussion,” she said.
Lessons learned from the widely debated and criticized move toward genetically modified crops have helped Van Eenennaam and her team set up field days for students to visit the gene edited animal and see her progress. After learning about the calf, a majority of students supported the idea of gene editing for humane purposes – something that was echoed in a recent poll in the United Kingdom.
“I think of (gene editing) like the seed industry sees top dressing gene edited corn. We keep refining and adding a little extra to make an animal a little bit better,” Allan said.
Even if they are behind dairy, genetics in the beef industry have come a long way, he said. Over the last 50 years, Allan’s data suggests that as the beef cattle herd dropped nearly 15 million animals, the average pounds of beef produced has risen nearly 3 million pounds. Even if it was unintentional genetic selection, Allan said beef producers have been working to improve genetics.
“When you start thinking about efficiency and getting better, we aren’t there yet but it’s come a long way,” he said.
The key points Allan suggests beef needs to take up are working with younger animals to genetically test, leveraging data with dairy to understand how genetics can play a role in the herd, and embracing change.
“We’re fragmented because of the way our industry splits into different sectors,” he said. “We need to work as a team all the way from conception to consumer or we will be told how to fit in going forward.”
Allan said the only way the beef industry can catch up with the dairy industry would be to keep pushing genetic profiles to see how each individual cow and bull is doing on their lot.
“We need to think about how we use these young animals with the information we have. But if I’m buying a bull, he has to have a genomic-enhanced profile to take advantage of everything that’s there in the toolbox,” Allan said.
While beef catches up to dairy in the next decade, Van Eenennaam suggested that gene editing will most likely be the next inflection point in the industry marked by very key changes in genetic understanding. Since artificial insemination was introduced in the 1940s, Van Eenannaam said each addition to the genetic toolbox has marked a very clear rate of genetic gain.
“The main question is ‘Will gene editing be the next inflection point?’” Van Eenennaam said.
The reason gene editing has begun to take off is the invention of CRISPR. This newer method of gene editing is the first to use guide RNAs, which are pieces of genetic information, to help ease the spliced piece of DNA into the designated breaking point.
“You can now tell your pair of scissors to go to a particular location with guides,” she said. “Instead of $400 it is now about 30 bucks.”
With this massive drop in cost, more and more gene editing is being tested across the globe. Van Eenannaams team is working on several key edits in beef cattle ranging from increase heat tolerance to disease and allergen resistant cows.
It’s a slow process, and on top of the procedure, it is still unclear whether or not the research that is being done is considered illegal.
“On Jan. 17, 2017 (the cow) was a healthy gene edited cow without horns and on Jan. 18, it was an unsafe drug,” she said.
This piece of regulation placed at the end of the Obama Administration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration limited gene editing research. Van Eenennaam called the move reactionary rather than risk-based, as her gene edited cow has shown no signs of being any different than any other dairy cow.
Because of this unstable time in gene editing regulation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA vying for control over the regulatory process, Van Eenennaam said several other countries have taken a more relaxed approach and are encouraging gene editing in their herds.
“There will be an interesting question being posed to these developers on whether or not they should risk it and go down to Brazil and try to import it back to the U.S.,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunities to work with South America and their sensible approach to this technology.”
With all the uncertainty in both genetics in beef and gene editing in livestock agriculture as a whole, Allan said the key takeaway remains to just collect information as best as possible.
“Still, number one is always the collection of complete data,” he said.