While the majority of all our food has come from farms for hundreds of years, agricultural practices have changed over time, largely due to advances in farming technology. In more recent years, these developments have included the use of biotechnology techniques such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).
We’ve explained previously that CRISPR is one of the bioengineering methods that can be used to alter the genetic information in the cells of living things—plants, fruits, vegetables, and more. That genetic information is contained in what we know as the fundamental building block of life—DNA. DNA can produce proteins that define what a living organism’s cells do or don’t do. To use an analogy from another type of technology, DNA acts in a way similar to how software controls the operation of a computer.
Food science and related-field researchers all over the world have been using CRISPR to perform genetic alterations in cells in order to alter food characteristics in ways that support the reliability of our food system. As mentioned above, CRISPR has been primarily used so far to alter the cells of plants, fruits and veggies. However, we’ve recently learned of the work being done by researcher Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Davis, who is using CRISPR on a new target: food-producing cows. To learn more about Dr. Eenennaam’s groundbreaking work, we asked her to field a few questions.
Q: How is your research team using CRISPR technology?
A: Gene editing is a technique that can be used to introduce useful genetic variations into [animal] breeding programs. It involves the use of enzymes that cut DNA at a specific sequence (site-specific nucleases, e.g. CRISPR-Cas9), thereby introducing a break into the DNA at a targeted location. Depending upon how that break is naturally mended by the DNA repair mechanisms in the cell, genetic variations can be introduced that range from nucleotide deletions or insertions to substitutions of one nucleotide for another.
We are using CRISPR to inactivate the gene responsible for horn development—thereby creating hornless dairy cattle. We are also using editing to try to produce all male offspring and bulls that carry elite genetics—both of which will increase the efficiency of beef production.
Q: How can CRISPR being used in beef cattle help our food supply system?
A: Researchers are already working on a range of gene-edited food-animal applications addressing important zoonotic diseases such as tuberculosis, African swine fever, avian influenza, and animal welfare traits to avoid painful processes such as dehorning and castration.
Tremendous potential exists for gene editing to positively impact food-animal genome sequencing projects. Some of the most well-known of these food animal applications include disease resistant animals such as pigs carrying a [DNA] deletion that provides resistance to the devastating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus; and dairy cows that carry a wild-type bovine allele for the POLLED gene, which means that they do not grow horns and are therefore spared the painful process of their physical removal.
Q: Why do you see the use of biotechnology as useful for safe, nutritious food production?
A: Biotechnology is a very broad term—it means the application of technology to biology. By that definition almost everything we do in agriculture is biotechnology. I find the term too broad to be useful. I support the use of all safe technologies in agricultural production systems and would argue that delaying or preventing the use of technology in agricultural breeding programs is associated with very real opportunity costs in terms of forgone genetic improvement. Plant breeders have already used gene-editing technologies to improve sustainability traits including disease resistance, drought and salt tolerance, and product quality. Animal breeders are poised to make similar advances.
Q: What else do you think consumers should understand about CRISPR and biotechnology and their uses in food production?
A: It is important to put genetic variation in context, especially as it relates to food. There are literally millions of naturally occurring DNA variations between any two healthy individuals of a given species. These variations are the reason genetic tests like “23andMe™” can identify family members and lineages; we share more unique alleles, or mutations, with our close relatives than we do with unrelated individuals. Breeders routinely select desired traits resulting from this DNA variation to develop new cultivars and varieties of food plants and animals.
All non-processed foods harbor DNA as a natural component and that DNA sequence is different in every individual of every food species (in both plants and animals, DNA variation per se does not pose a unique hazard as it relates to food safety). DNA is generally regarded as safe to consume, and it is a routine ingredient of food obtained from any species, irrespective of its sequence or the breeding method used to introduce sequence variants.
These advances in using bioengineering seek not only to help support food production; they also seek to help support food-producing animals as well. We are excited to see what technologies, including CRISPR, can do next in order to positively impact our food supply chain at multiple points—from corn to cows.