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A Glimpse into a New Era: Genetically Modified Animals

July 1, 2015
Science fiction and pop culture, such as the Jurassic Park franchise, narrate an unrealistic view of genetically modified animals. However, the use of genetically modified animals can improve livestock farming practices, save endangered species, and can even lead to cures for human diseases. In Kevin Loria’s entertaining and informative blog post, The age of genetically engineered animals has arrived, Loria speaks to the benefits of genetically engineered animals with real-life examples, discusses bioethics, and highlights the endless possibilities with genetic engineering.

“Science has grown to give researchers the ability to modify and manipulate life; this ability has already resulted in drastic improvement in agriculture with genetically modified crops which can be resistant to drought and pests and can even lead to increased crop yields," stated Loria.

“This scientific breakthrough is just a more accurate way of enhancing advantageous traits, which has been practiced by humans for thousands of years through a process called selective breeding. Selective breeding practices and genetic modification are not only limited to crops but is also used for livestock and animal breeding to acquire desirable traits.”

Loria points out that selective breeding diminishes genetic diversity and can ultimately lead to inbreeding depression, or the increase of deleterious traits. He also highlights that the desirable trait could be generations away. For example, cow’s horns are often painfully cut or burned off so cattle do not harm each other. Through genetic engineering it can be possible to selectively mate cows without horns:

“Although we could develop hornless dairy cows through breeding, it would take vastly longer and pose more risks. We'd have to mate cows without horns with each other for generations until we got hornless offspring — yet we'd almost certainly lose some of the traits that make dairy cows the best milk producers in the world. It's much easier if you can just disable the genes that code for horns.”

Recombinetics — a company which specializes in gene repair, editing, and addition has already found a way to eliminate the genes responsible for these horns. Agriculture is only one area GE animals could greatly influence; in regards to public health there have been efforts from companies like Revivicor and SAB Biotherapeutics which have genetically modified animals to have kidneys, hearts, livers, and antibodies acceptable for donation to humans in need of transplants. Companies such as Elanco Health are aiming to advance animal health for pets and livestock so they can live a longer healthier life. AquaBounty Technologies has created salmon, tilapia and trout which can grow at a faster than traditional fish, showing how GE animals can potentially feed the world for our growing population. One of the more well-known GE animals is the fluorescent zebrafish, marketed as GloFish; it was created by Yorktown Technologies to use the fish to detect polluted water. These innovative companies display the potential growth and benefits of the broad use of GE animals.

The possibilities don’t end there argues Loria. He states that GE animals could even potentially save endangered species like the beloved elephant:

“In the case of a mammoth, Harvard geneticist George Church is already trying to take the genes that allowed mammoths to survive Arctic cold and put those genes into their closest living relatives, Asian elephants. If they succeed, these new mammoth-like elephants could theoretically repopulate Siberia and Northern Europe, where they'd face fewer threats from development than Asian elephants do in their current habitats.”

Kevin Loria ends his piece by addressing ethical concerns around this technology:

“Pretty much unanimously, when asked about creating some sort of bizarre hybrid creature, leading scientists and researchers in this field responded with, ‘But why?’ It would make more sense to use this new technology ‘to fix some of the poor animals we have created,’ suggests Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotech specialist at the University of California at Davis, ‘rather than create bizarre new ones.’”

Even those in favor of bold, risky, projects, like “How to Clone a Mammoth” author and University of California at Santa Cruz Professor Beth Shapiro, believes that we should proceed with incredible caution and ensure that whatever we do, it's done with the goal of creating a more environmentally sustainable planet.