They were the GM cows that would change the dairy industry forever, but then it all went wrong
The issue with the gene-edited hornless cattle featured in the story below is that they were unexpectedly found to contain antibiotic resistance genes, which could potentially be transferred to disease-causing bacteria. For more information, see this and this.
EXCERPT: Professor Jack Heinemann, a molecular biologist from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has worked in gene-editing for decades. He’s also advised regulators and worked with groups sceptical of the technology, like Greenpeace. He says the error shows regulators need to independently test gene-edited products before they’re released. Heinemann says he doesn’t know if any harm could have come from the mistake in the cattle’s gene editing, but “if we don’t look, we don’t find it. And that’s the importance of regulation,” he says.
Mutants or miracles?
By Michael Slezak and Penny Timms
ABC, 13 Mar 2020
[excerpt only reproduced below]
* They were the genetically modified cows that would change the dairy industry forever, but then it all went wrong and the experiment ended up in an Australian paddock.
It’s pitch black. The Sun won’t rise for another hour or so.
The ground around Tony Biffin’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Sydney is so wet vehicles are of no use today.
Tony’s son Todd is on horseback, preparing to herd the cattle inside for their morning milking.
Todd and his horse are invisible in the darkness, but you can hear the sound of his whistles directing the cows.
Once inside the dairy, Tony and Todd move busily, systematically attaching the milking machines to their cows.
They’ll milk about 120 in a couple of hours, but it’s not these adult milking cows that are the focus of today — it’s the nearby calves.
After the milking is done, Tony’s wife Debbie arrives and begins caringly handfeeding the calves from fresh buckets of milk.
But for four of these calves, the day holds a much less tender fate. Today, they’re having their horn buds removed.
It’s a process called “disbudding”.
It involves the horn buds being removed before they grow and attach to the cow’s skull. It’s a process that happens on the majority of dairy farms in Australia.
It’s a process nobody — not the cow, nor Todd and Tony — enjoys.
It all starts with Todd switching on an electric iron. He waits until it’s searing hot.
A calf about six weeks old is led into the “crush” — a machine that closes around its neck to hold it still.
A rope is tied around the calf’s snout and pulled taut to keep its head flat against the crush.
Todd holds on and plunges the hot iron into the side of its forehead.
He’s a strong man in his 30s and he’s pressing hard.
As the calf bucks and rears, it doesn’t make a sound, but its eyes widen and Todd struggles to keep its head in place.
The calf remains conscious, but collapses.
It salivates and breathes heavily through its mouth.
The process is not over — there’s still the second horn to remove.
In Australia there are about 1.4 million dairy cows and most go through this process.
For some beef cattle — like those in much of Northern Australia — the process is often far more gruesome, with fully developed horns sliced off.
Todd says it would be impossible to run a dairy like his without disbudding.
“I mean, if you see the size of some of the horns, they could literally open each other up,” he says.
“They’d be quite deep wounds that could potentially be fatal to each other.”
Tony and Todd use a pain reliever similar to ibuprofen — a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory — during the process, but it is still painful.
“I don’t know of anyone that likes dehorning,” Tony says.
Both of them agree it would be great if they never had to do it on their farm again.
The hornless dream
It is possible to naturally breed a hornless dairy cow.
Angus beef cattle don’t have horns, and when they mate with dairy cattle, half of their offspring won’t grow horns either.
The problem is this compromises the quality and yield of milk production — something that can only be corrected through decades of further breeding.
Scientists wanted to breed a cow that was all dairy, but without the horns.
Using advanced gene-editing technology called TALENS, scientists took the DNA sequence that stops Angus cattle from growing horns and inserted it into the DNA of dairy cattle.
Two hornless dairy bulls were born, albeit created in the lab.
These bulls, named Buri and Spotigy, were raised and monitored at the University of California and their semen was used to father a new generation.
It was hailed as a scientific breakthrough.
Buri and his offspring became the poster animals for gene editing, featured on the front pages of Wired magazine and The New York Times.
The great promise was that gene editing could make farming less cruel, but controversy followed the fame.
Many consumers were — and still are — fearful of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they might mean for their health and the environment.
In a public relations move designed to allay that fear, the company behind the breakthrough, Recombinetics, and its collaborators argued the gene-edited cattle were not GMO.
Rather, they said, the cattle were the product of “precision breeding” — different to GMO because the process replicated what nature could already do, but with more precision.
They took this argument to regulators around the world in a bid to circumvent the checks and regulations that GMOs were usually subject to.
In 2018, they had a win when Brazil classified the hornless cattle as non-GMO and issued a licence for their import.
The door was opening but, thanks to the work of a vigilant United States Government scientist, it quickly slammed shut.
“I was snowed in at my cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania,” Alexis Norris, from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says.
“My co-workers were my three pugs.”
Dr Norris had just created a computer program to examine gene-edited DNA for possible editing errors, but she needed to test the program to prove it worked.
To do that she needed high-quality genetic data to feed through the program and the plan was to use some that was sure to be free of errors.
The hornless cattle had just what she needed, or so she thought.
“That’s when I saw it. And I did not believe it,” Alexis says.
The “precisely edited” cattle were no such thing — the DNA included a mistake.
DNA from a type of bacteria — which was part of the gene-editing tools themselves — was accidentally inserted into the cattle’s DNA.
This meant Buri was technically part bull, part bacterium.
It meant the cattle were GMO by any definition.
The company’s plans to commercialise the animals globally were completely quashed.
But there’s another twist to this tale.
Australia’s GM cows
This paddock in country Victoria could be just like any other. Surrounded by lush grass, it’s lined with trees and a wire fence.
There’s one key difference — what’s inside it is considered a “biological hazard” and is under quarantine.
The paddock is run by Total Livestock Genetics, an Australian animal genetics and reproduction technology company collaborating with Recombinetics.
And it is the home to five of the “proof of concept” hornless cattle; the offspring of one of the famous bulls, Buri.
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