Gene editing technology provides beneficial tools
The technology surrounding gene editing is an important development for farmers around the world, but Constance Coleman, president of the Farm Foundation, stated, “The questions around the technology are going to be there, but it’s not a technology that is completely new for plant and animal breeding – and even animal health.”
However, Coleman commented, when she visits with folks about gene editing, there is a lot of conversation and limited understanding and the technology.
During a mid-July 2018 webinar, Farm Foundation explored what gene editing is and is not, who has the most to gain and lose regarding the technology and what hurdles remain in reviewing gene editing.
“This technology has captured the imaginations of everyone from kids at home playing with the technology to generations of farmers who see the technology as the future as we go forward,” Coleman explained.
Inside the technology
“Gene editing is a pretty straightforward technology,” according to Mitch Abrahamsen of Recombinetics, noting that CRISPR, TALON and other tools all utilize gene editing. “The technology is dependent on naturally occurring processing involved in repair and replication of DNA.”
Abrahamsen describes gene editing as having a molecular pencil, saying, “We flip the pencil over on one side and erase a couple of nucleotides, and then we flip the pencil around and write in a couple of nucleotides.”
Experimentally, the tool is straightforward, robust and precise in its ability to alter DNA.
“We identify specific nucleotides where we identify a variation in DNA and then use gene editing to employ the technology across lots of different germplasm to express a trait in an animal that is desirable,” he explained, using the example of polled versus horned cattle as one application of gene editing. “This technology works very well.”
Animal disease application
Abrahamsen’s company, Recombinetics, focuses on gene editing of non-human cells, including in biomedical fields that allows the company to think about different ways to treat and diagnose human diseases. Recombinetics also has a branch – Acceligen – that focuses on precision breeding for animal health, welfare and productivity.
“Our ability to come in an adjust gene variation and provide animals with better phenotypes that’ll improve the health and welfare of an animal, as well as addressing disease resistance issues, provides a strong driver as to why we want to use this technology in the marketplace,” Abrahamsen explained.
Animal welfare traits are one area where producers and consumers both see benefits. Additionally, Acceligen looks at animal health and productivity traits, which are address uniquely in the germplasm.
“We’re really trying to drive the acceptance of gene editing for consumers and throughout the world,” he said.
“We can use gene editing technology – based on the knowledge of our production animals – to solve welfare traits, like horned cattle, quickly and efficiently,” Abrahamsen commented. “We need to start asking ourselves the question of how can we improve the way we produce.”
For instance, because dehorning cattle is a practice often targeted with animal welfare concerns, he said consumers are more motivated to use technology like gene editing because it provides benefits to animals, producers and consumers alike.
He said, “It’s one thing to have a technology and seek a problem that it will solve, but here, we have a problem and this technology can give us this solution.”
Deploying gene editing
While the technology of gene editing has been widely used very successful across the agriculture industry, Abrahamsen noted the biggest question is how to broadly use gene editing in a way that is acceptable to the marketplace and fits within the regulatory framework provided to achieve the benefits.
Abrahamsen explained that productivity and growth traits have been selected for using breeding and genetic technologies for years, but animal welfare traits may provide an opportunity for gene editing to play an important role.
“These traits are hard to select for traditionally within our product systems, and because we try to avoid these traits, they’re never found in our selection programs,” he said. “The pipeline is also very long to look at the pedigrees and selection. Because it’s three or four years from breeding to market, there is a disconnect.”
Additionally, gene editing doesn’t fall into the “traps” of loss of genetic variation because only specific segments of the gene are edited.
While benefits are apparent, according to Abrahamsen, he said challenges as they relate to the regulatory sphere are ever-present.
“We have been working with the White House, USDA and Congress to address some of these concerns,” he said.
“It’s one thing to have a robust and powerful technology that people are interested in, but if we can’t figure out how to get products in the marketplace and interest from both consumers and producers, it just becomes a scientific exercise,” Abrahamsen said. “The focus is on how we take this technology and deploy it in a way that makes a difference for the consumer, as well as the producer, and for the animals, as well.”
Saige Albert is a managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.