Society is undeniably at a tipping point when it comes to genetic engineering. Some are all for the rapidly advancing technology and tout the benefits that may come with it. Others are wary of it because of the many ethical concerns it raises.
Regardless of the raging debate, science continues to press on. A team from the University of California Davis has announced that it can create healthy bulls that don’t grow horns thanks to some creative gene-hacking.
Method to the Madness
Why exactly the team was studying this particular topic is a little strange at first glance. However, with a bit of industry knowledge, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Traditionally, many dairy farmers remove the horns of male calves to help prevent injuries. This protects not only the human workers but also the other animals living in the space. It also allows the farmers to keep bulls closer together without fearing that the animals will maim each other.
Unfortunately, as one might guess, the procedure is both painful and risky for the bull calves. That’s why the UC Davis team turned to genetic engineering as a way to circumvent the problem.
So, how exactly did the team accomplish such a feat?
According to their research, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, scientists used bacterial plasmids to penetrate the bull’s DNA. From there, the microscopic bio-tool was able to target and remove the specific “horn-growing gene.”
Researcher Alison Van Eenennaam weighed in via a university press release, “We’ve demonstrated that healthy hornless calves with only the intended edit can be produced and we provided data to help inform the process for evaluating genome-edited animals.”
Essentially, the team was able to create a hornless bull without any other genetic alterations. While it’s nearly impossible to prove that altering one segment of DNA won’t have amplified effects in later generations, it does seem that the bulls were free of malformities and abnormalities.
While such a technique would be favorable for the bulls, it does raise some ethical questions for both farmers and consumers. For one, how much is sparing bulls the pain of horn removal worth?
Yes, that sounds cruel. However, ordering bull embryos specially treated to remove the horn-growing gene will be a costly endeavor. While it may be a one-time investment, farmers aren’t really spending anything to remove horns using their current methods.
Meanwhile, since the bulls are essentially gene-hacked creations, there would likely be plenty of additional testing prior to selling the meat to consumers. Both of these things would ultimately raise prices. Of course, this assumes that consumers would even be willing to eat the GMO beef.
Even so, the humane option may prove to be the best choice moving forward if the UC Davis team or other researchers can prove that the technique is safe.