Jurassic Park has sparked the imagination of viewers since its debut in 1993. With movie number five coming out this week, the film industry’s ability to make species that have been extinct for millions of years seem real, have people wondering what scientist can actually do with gene editing technology.
Bruce Whitelaw is a biotechnology professor at the University of Edinburgh and deputy director of the Roslin Institute. Whitelaw, addressed researchers, government officials and gene editing companies at the Large Animal Genetic Engineering Summit in Park City this month. He said he will always remember his first interview with the press.
“They propped me up on a fencepost at a farm, put the microphone in front of me, zoomed in with the camera and out came the question, ‘Is Jurassic Park possible?’ You cannot laugh! Otherwise, that’s it, it’s going viral,” Whitelaw said.
Scientists haven’t been able to bring the dinosaurs back yet. Their gene editing research focuses on medical and agricultural advancements using cattle, goats and pigs.
“The most important thing about communicating is to show that we’re not hiding. If there’s a void someone else will fill it for you,” Whitelaw said. “We all learn from each other. As a scientist, you know your little minutia of the science that you do but it’s a big world out there.”
For a long time, scientists have stayed in the lab and left communication with the public off their to-do list, according to Whitelaw. He said that’s when public misperception fills the gap of information. Whitelaw says scientists are working on ways to improve animal welfare using gene editing technology.
“When it comes to livestock, obviously the benefit of a disease-resistant animal is it doesn’t suffer,” Whitelaw said. “Within a population, it means more of your animals are viable so it, therefore, you get more product, more meat, more protein which is what they are at end of the day for the same number of animals. If half of them died, it’s a huge waste, it’s an environmental burden.”
How is gene editing technology used in today’s world?
Tad Sonstegard, the Chief Scientific officer of Acceligen, a Recombinetics gene-editing platform company, presented his research on thermoregulation in cattle at the conference. Instead of keeping dinosaurs alive in tropical climates, he’s working on keeping cattle healthy instead.
Sonstegard’s team was able to find a gene mutation that would allow breeds of cattle to survive harsh elements in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela. He said the prolactin receptor, part of the cattle DNA, is important in the animals’ ability to stay cool in warm climates.
“So what we learned is that if we just snip a little piece of that coding region of that gene out so that it can’t signal so that the cow’s thermostat is broken in a way,” Sonstegard said. “It doesn’t know that it’s hot, but it also has this morphology changed to protect it by having more sweat. We can move that allele into any cattle breed that is going to be raised in a very hot and humid climate and those animals will perform better because they won’t be bothered by the heat from the sun.”
If you’ve ever played sports or worked in the hot sun and you didn’t stay hydrated, it’s easy to get heat stroke and even pass out. Sonstegard said cattle in these regions don’t always have immediate access to water.
“If they’re in an intensive production system in a dairy barn, it doesn’t matter if they have the water or not,” Sonstegard said. “They can’t dissipate the heat without fans and sprinklers. In a lot of these less-developed countries, those are the dairy systems so those animals are suffering from heat stroke.”
With this new allele, Sonstegard said this ability to regulate temperatures more efficiently is a problem solver for many animal welfare issues in tropical climates. But the production abilities are also more efficient.
“It shows true in dairy; we have data for that. With beef, we’re not so sure yet, but I would assume it’s going to be the same,” Sonstegard said. “I have a colleague in Brazil that keeps ear tags that tracks the movements of animals all day long, 24 hours a day. His senepol animals are constantly on the move grazing in the middle of the day. Whereas he can track some of his other crossbred animals that don’t have the SLICK allele in the shade”
Gene editing technology has the potential to satisfy the growing demand for protein in developing countries according to Sonstegard. However, it will take time to develop breed associations and introduce new animal husbandry techniques. He said one of the biggest goals for scientists is a positive public perception on developing technologies in agriculture.
Right now, scientists will leave creating dinosaurs to Hollywood.