Lee Pitts: Enough Is Never Enough
The folks in white lab coats and low shoes with letters after their names are up to their old tricks again in attempting to build the super cow of the future. And please note I said “build,” not “breed.” It seems the gestation length of the bovine is much too long and scientists are much too impatient to wait on better breeding to get us where they think we need to be, so they’ve come up with a couple ways to speed up the process.
The researchers attempting to create cows for the 21st century include genetic engineers and genetic editors. Now I know as much about engineering as a cow does about Christmas, but I was the editor of our own livestock newspaper so the concept of editors messing around with the cows genome frightens me. The job of an editor is to correct mistakes and cut, cut, cut. The space in any periodical is some of the most valuable real estate in the world and any space an editor can save goes right to the bottom line, like shortening a 16 page newspaper to a 12 pager. Some editors I’ve had didn’t even read the stories but just whacked off a chunk at the end that may have contained the punch line. I’d hate to think that gene editors would follow the same shortcuts in whacking off key parts of the cow’s DNA so we ended up with cows without a rumen or missing some limbs.
The only thing I know about engineers is that they make more money than editors do and have retirement benefits and health insurance. But as I understand it, the difference between gene editing and genetic engineering is that the engineers take germ plasm from an entirely different animal or plant and insert it into another’s DNA, so you could end up with sheep that have litters and hogs that go “moo.” Gene editing, on the other hand, takes advantage of something called “mutagenesis” which has been going on ever since the first fish walked out of the sea on its own two gills. Gene editors simply speed up the process of evolution by “turning on and off” certain genetic switches. For example, you might say that eventually all beef animals will be polled, so genetic editors just speed up the process. It’s like evolution on steroids.
According to the Center for Food Integrity, gene editing is going to be a “game changer” and “is in its earliest stages.” Which merely means the gene editors haven’t got all their lobbyists in place to start paying off politicians in DC just yet. But they do say it will have big benefits for the “stakeholders.” I get nervous whenever I hear that word and I don’t understand how a group playing with our food on the genetic level can have the word “integrity” in its name.
This is not to suggest there aren’t a few changes in your basic cow that I’d like to see. Maybe the gene editors can turn off the switch that makes a cow try to kill you in the sorting alley or turn on the genetic switch that will make cows stand more peacefully in the squeeze chute. I’d also like a cow that calves only in daylight. Perhaps the genetic engineers could cut and splice the genes from a fainting goat on to cows’ DNA so that at your next branding your calves will just fall to the ground and never move to be branded and vaccinated, thus eliminating the need for any moody ropers. If it wouldn’t be too much to ask I’d like future cattle to all grade like a Waygu, be more obedient to dogs, and load on demand. Other than that I think that cattle are pretty much perfect the way they are.
On one level I wish scientists would just leave well enough alone. It seems that things could get going in the wrong direction pretty darn fast and there may be a few booby traps hidden in the DNA helix the scientists aren’t aware of. The only researchers I’ve known lived by the motto, if it ain’t broke, break it. I think they’ll keep tinkering until they create the bovine equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster because for the white coat clan, enough is never enough.