Since its discovery in 2012, CRISPR gene editing has revolutionized biology. And it may soon make its way to cattle farms. The FDA has approved the use of CRISPR to breed cows better suited to warmer climates. But how will this new generation of cows impact the meat industry?
Slicker, But Otherwise the Same
In early March, the FDA gave the thumbs up to gene-editing in cows. Future generations of cows will have a much higher chance of being born with slick, short hair, a trait that will help them cope with heat. Proponents of CRISPR gene editing believe the process will help offset the effects of global warming on the cattle industry.
Named PRLR-SLICK, the new cattle breed will be genetically identical to cows that already have the slick, short hair trait. This differentiates CRISPR from genetic modification, which implants DNA from one organism into another, often between reproductively incompatible species. Rather, CRISPR increases the probability of natural traits being passed down. As a result, PRLR-SLICK does not qualify as a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Impact on the Beef Industry
The safety of GMOs continues to be a topic of debate among scientists and health experts. These concerns have understandably overlapped into the cattle industry, which supplies the vast majority of meat in most developed nations.
After reviewing the science, the FDA determined that using CRISPR gene editing to breed slick-haired cows carries little risk. Accligen, the agriculture division of Recombinetics, is the main company breeding PRLR-SLICK. The Minnesota-based research institute’s use of CRISPR on cows comes after UC Davis researchers used the tool in 2020 to breed Cosmo, who could produce male offspring 75 percent of the time.
The FDA isn’t averse to approving GMOs, having given the green light to genetically modified chickens, rabbits, goats, pigs, and salmon. Their approval carried concerns that the modified animals could not occur through conventional breeding. PRLR-SLICK stands out as the first gene-edited animal to be deemed “low risk” in terms of meat consumption. Studies support that beef from PRLR-SLICK is identical to that of their conventionally bred counterparts.
The Future of CRISPR Gene Editing
The FDA is working closely with genomic research firms to determine future uses for CRISPR. The ability to edit the genome of any organism presents incredible possibilities and pressing concerns. Using CRISPR, scientists can edit out genetic diseases, edit in beneficial traits, and accelerate research into sustainable energy, stem cells, agriculture, and many other fields.
While PRLR-SLICK isn’t the first use of gene editing in animals, it sets a precedent by staying within the bounds of nature. The FDA hopes to approve more low risk innovations that will benefit not only humans, but the organisms bred with their new genomic profile.
Despite its seemingly infinite possibilities, CRISPR isn’t a panacea. It is, however, a powerful tool in our arsenal as we navigate an increasingly complex, fast-paced world. With the proper intentions and risk assessments, we can safely edit the world into a better place one gene at a time.