In the Genes: Hereford breed investigates possibilities of precision breeding
With emerging technologies in the beef industry, today’s cattlemen are able to get better results for their breeding decisions than ever before. The rising popularity of genomics has allowed seedstock producers to provide more accurate EPDs for their commercial cow-calf customers. These genetically-enhanced EPDs offer producers the ability to select for specific traits and achieve their goals with enhanced accuracy.
Scott Fahrenkrug, Ph.D., wants to take precision breeding one step further. As the CEO of Recombinetics, Fahrenkrug uses gene-editing technology to provide animal breeders a precise, accurate and rapid method of changing specific traits in less time than is possible in a conventional breeding program. He says the company is targeting traits that impact productivity, animal health and animal welfare.
With genetic defects in the cattle industry making the news, many breed associations are seeking out Recombinetics to assist in identifying these genomic markers and are using the technology to eliminate that specific trait without having to eliminate the entire genetic package of that particular animal.
The American Hereford Association (AHA) is one of those breed associations and is tackling three traits that can cause issues within breed — horns, cancer eye and prolapses.
“We are pursuing the technology of gene mapping, and there is definitely some breeder interest in trying to modify the horned gene in the Hereford breed,” said Shane Bedwell, AHA chief operating officer and director of breed improvement. “The technology is ready and available to manipulate the embryo and snip that marker out, but we are waiting on approval to release it.”
Recombinetics has sequenced the whole genome sequence of 18 Hereford bulls, looking at fertility traits, abnormalities, and anything like cancer eye and prolapse that could potentially be modified, said Jack Ward, AHA executive vice president.
“Breeders have taken a good approach at eliminating these issues, but this technology could help produce the kind of cattle the industry is calling for and could help commercial producers buy with more confidence once these genetic traits are eliminated,” said Ward.
“We are ready to start commercializing this technology this year and in 2017,” added Fahrenkrug. “Breeding can begin anytime, and the animals could be available for sale by next year.”
There is some discussion with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the approval of precision breeding technology, said Fahrenkrug; however, he says that because this process is natural — meaning that there is no foreign DNA being introduced to these animals — there is simply no reason for government jurisdiction on beef produced from these animals.
“There are 3 billion genes in a single beef animal, and each individual animal differs by at least 3 million genes,” explained Fahrenkrug. “We are simply removing or adding one gene of the 3 billion genes. Can you imagine having to label a steak for moving one naturally-occurring gene in that large of a sequence?”
He said the technology is like word processing, where a few letters can be changed to exhibit a polled calf instead of a horned calf. The end result is still a healthy, thriving calf, but the polled gene has been achieved, saving money for the rancher and pain for the animal.
“Breeding a polled calf can be done naturally, but this can help producers achieve that breeding much faster,” he said. “There are many traits we are currently working on, and I’m always asking myself, ‘Is this an animal welfare trait? How does this impact the animal?’”
Not every Hereford breeder is anxious to get rid of horns, said Oshkosh, Nebraska, breeder, Joe Van Newkirk. “We have a lot of customers who like their horned bulls. They can identify them easily in the pasture, and the horned bulls stay scattered thoughout the pasture instead of congregating in the corner or at a watering hole,” he said.
Besides the fact that some Hereford breeders truly enjoy the appearance of horned animals, there are other benefits to leaving the horns on, he said. “You can rope and doctor a cow and not have to worry about choking her down,” said Van NewKirk, whose family has been in the Hereford business for over 100 years, and added that horned cows can fend off predators and make their way through brush and other territorial challenges. Van NewKirks sold 200 bulls in their January sale.
The ability to completely get rid of prolapse and cancer eye would be beneficial to the breed, and VanNewkirk looks forward to seeing how well the technology works. “Through genetic selection, the Hereford breed has eliminated a lot of that but to eliminate it 100 percent would be terrific,” he said.
Fahrenkrug, a former tenured animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, runs his business out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Recombinetic’s animal agriculture branch, Acceligen, is working to improve livestock disease resilience, increase food productivity and enhance animal welfare through advanced gene-editing technologies.
In addition to identifying and eliminating the horned gene, Acceligen is identifying genetic markers in cattle that might be more susceptible to foot and mouth disease, bovine respiratory disease, and brucellosis. Scientists have identified the “slick” gene, which would allow more heat-tolerant cattle to thrive in hot places like Africa, which would help feed the hungry population there and provide people around the world with livestock that would perform well in extremely hot climates.
In the pork industry, a gene that controls the sexual development hormones in male pigs has been identified and could eliminate the need for castration, potentially save producers time and money.
To produce more beef sustainably to feed a growing planet, Fahrenkrug says identifying the muscling gene, called myostatins, in double-muscled cattle could help produce 30 percent more beef per animal. However, it’s a common problem with double muscled cattle like Belgian Blues to have dystocia problems, but with precision breeding, he says you can identify the single gene without introducing the calving problems to future offspring. The Limousin breed has identified the F94L muscling gene — the mildest version of the eight myostatins identified in beef cattle — which could one day be introduced to other breeds to help yield more red meat per animal.
“In theory, if we can create 30 percent more yield, we would eliminate the need for growth promotants in the beef industry,” he said. “If we can create more disease-resistant livestock, the need for antibiotics would be reduced. It’s better for the animals, and it becomes more profitable for producers. Plus, it satisfies consumer concerns and criticisms from the animal rights crowd.”
“It’s quite stunning the impact we could have on our productivity and the well-being and welfare of the animals,” Fahrenkrug added. “There is a presumption that there is going to be some regulation; however, I need help from the livestock industry in making sure our voice is heard, and we prevent overreach from the FDA. The government has never told a cattlemen which bull or which heifer he is going to breed, and this should be no different. We are selecting and directing; the outcome of breeding that producers have always done is the same; it’s just faster. It’s not time for the government to come in and tell them what to do. It’s time for producers to tell the government how breeding will be done in the future. I feel so strongly about this; I will fight this to the Supreme Court if I have to. It’s nature’s bounty, nature’s way; and the government needs to go away.”
The comment period with the FDA is open until March, when the agency will decide whether more regulation is needed on cattle bred through precision gene editing.
“It’s kind of backwards to have animal breeding regulation in the hands of the FDA when it should be in the hands of the USDA,” he said. “The FDA regulates drugs, and with that, they need to presume something is unsafe until you can prove them otherwise. This might fit a drug paradigm, but it does not fit in a breeding paradigm. If an animal is happy and healthy, the presumption should be that the animal is fine to eat.”
With pressures for improved animal welfare standards from companies like Walmart, Kroger and Nestle, among others, it makes sense for the animal agriculture industry to try and meet consumer demands, and Fahrenkrug says breed associations like the AHA are on the right track.
“Dehorning is one of the top issues many retailers have as priorities to change in the industry,” he said. “This technology could help meet those demands. When I vote this election year, I’m a one-issue voter, and that’s this one. We know Bernie Sanders is against genetically-modified organisms, so I don’t think he would be favorable to precision breeding technology. I do think Hillary Clinton will be supportive of science-based regulatory systems, which is all we are asking for. If the government is going to regulate and make decisions, then it needs to be based on science and reality. I also think any of the Republican candidates would do fine by us, as well.”
Fahrenkrug urges breed associations, livestock producers and industry professionals to write to the FDA, to contact their elected officials in Washington, D.C., and to spread the word that precision breeding technology isn’t something to be feared or regulated, it’s a natural extension to what animal breeders have been doing for thousands of years — selecting animals with the best traits and breeding them to produce a better, higher producing animal.
For more information on this technology, check out acceligen.com or recombinetics.com.
As for VanNewkirk, he looks forward to seeing how the technlogy works in the real world but he’s not in “any big rush” to use it in his herd. “When you are dealing with a living, breathing animal, I do have some concerns. It needs to be thoroughly checked out,” he said, adding that he plans to take the “wait and see” approach to learn how the genetic modifications will affect the industry in a practical way.
Van Newkirk uses DNA testing for sire identification on some of his sale bulls. When he has a relatively small sire group of bulls that might not lend itself to accurate EPDs, he also uses genetic testing to provide genetically enhanced – and hopefully more accurate – EPDs.
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