Playing God?

The stars in this story are glow-in-the-dark kitty-cats, muscle-bound salmon, silk-spinning goats, hypo-allergenic-cows and featherless chickens. So why are we taking up your time talking about animals that would seem to belong more on some circus midway freak show more than they do the front page of a cattle newspaper?

Because in a few short years you may be creating your own customized cows using the same technology that created these freaks of non-nature.

A Game Changer

In 2004 there was a much-ignored American monster movie whose villain was a genetically engineered fish that lived in a Louisiana bayou. (Don’t feel bad, I never saw the film either.) You may never have heard of the name of the non-Oscar award winning movie called Frankenfish, but you will in the future because critics of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) have slapped the Frankenfish nickname on a quick-growing salmon created in 1989 by a Massachusetts company called AquaBounty. The firm took an Atlantic salmon and inserted genes from a Chinook salmon and an ocean “pout”. And no, we aren’t talking about what your kid does when he or she doesn’t get its way. A “pout” is a serpent-like fish with antifreeze proteins in its blood allowing it to live in freezing waters. By mixing genes from the two strains of salmon with the pout scientists created a fish that can reach a marketable weight in a year-and-a-half instead of the usual three years with wild salmon.

After a 20-year battle with regulators, AquaBounty has now been given U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approval to sell its genetically altered AquAdvantage salmon to American consumers. A closer look at AquaBounty reveals it is majority-owned by a firm that trades under the name of Intrexon Corporation. Think of it as the Monsanto of genetically modified (GM) fish.

As you can imagine, consumer, animal rights and green groups were not thrilled with the coming-out party of the superfish.

The AquAdvantage salmon was actually declared safe to eat by the FDA way back in 2010 but critics objected back then that the genetically engineered fish might pee in the gene pool, so to speak, thereby creating mutant wild salmon. Only after AquaBounty was able to make their AquAdvantage fish sterile did FDA give their seal of approval. The FDA also demanded that for it to be sold in the United States AquAdvantage salmon must be raised only in land-based tanks in two facilities, one in Canada and the other in Panama.

Although, CostCo, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target, Safeway and Kroger’s say they won’t sell AquAdvantage salmon, there’s a good chance in the next few years you may unknowingly buy and eat some because as of now, just like with foreign beef, it doesn’t have to be labeled. That’s because the FDA says there are no material differences between an engineered and a normal salmon.

AquaBounty’s CEO Ronald Stotish says, “AquAdvantage Salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats.”

Freak Show

Although AquAdvantage salmon is the first genetically modified animal cleared for human consumption in the United States, it is definitely not the first genetically modified living being on earth. Here are just a few of my favorites:

• Web Weaving Goats– Silk is a highly valued textile that is expensive to produce in vast quantities. Faced with this problem Nexia Biotechnologies announced in 2000 that they had inserted a silk gene from spiders into a goat which produces milk containing the protein found in spider webs. This cheaply produced protein can then be used to make Biosteel®, a super strong and flexible textile with a plethora of uses including replacement tendons.

• Golden Seahorses– In every state except California you can legally buy tiny seahorses with the Midas touch. Vietnamese scientists created these miniature saltwater equines by utilizing the “gene shooting method” whereby they shot a mixture of gold dust and jellyfish proteins into the eggs of a seahorse. Voila! A remuda of golden seahorses.

• Nude Poultry– I know, Chickens Without Feathers sounds like the name of a 1960’s rock band, but this plumage-challenged poultry was created by scientists in Israel. The nude chickens are supposed to be cheaper to raise, more environmentally friendly, and don’t require plucking, but we can only imagine what the freezing, humiliated chickens think.

• Rabbits As Art- An “artist”, and we’re using the term loosely here, by the name of Eduard Kac uses genetic engineering to create living art works. For example, in May of 2000, he introduced Alba, an albino rabbit that glowed fluorescent when under a blue light. Alba was actually created by a French research institute using the same method to create the golden seahorses, only in this case they injected fluorescent jellyfish protein into a fertilized rabbit egg. Alas, Alba went to bunny heaven, which may be the first ever case of a piece of art really dying.

• Incandescent Cats– In 2011 American and Japanese scientists inserted genes into lab cats that made some of their cells glow in the dark. But they weren’t just playing around with a gene gun. The glow-in-the-dark cat was created as a way to fight feline immunodeficiency virus which is apparently the HIV of feral Tom cats. The cats appear normal by day, but glow at night. Tell me that wouldn’t make one cool cat!

Kill The Editor!

Lest you think all this genetic tomfoolery is limited to sea horses and Tom cats consider these cases of real live genetically modified cattle:

•Hypo-Allergenic Cows– About three percent of babies are born allergic to cow’s milk. So, in 2012, a New Zealand government-owned company called AgResearch bio-engineered a cow called Daisy that produced milk that didn’t contain the protein that makes babies allergic to milk. In getting rid of the gene that makes the protein the firm used a technique called RNA interference. Such a process is known as gene “editing” because scientists did not add any genes from other animals but simply eliminated one it already had.

• Green Cows– One of the negatives that greenies always bring up about cows is they produce an abundance of methane, a greenhouse gas that supposedly contributes to global warming, or absent that, climate change. Scientists from the University of Alberta were able to identify the bacterium that produces the methane and by so doing were able to create cattle that produce 25 percent less methane than your average cow.

• Hornless Holsteins– In 2013, a Minnesota-based firm, Recombinetics, borrowed a gene from the Angus breed and inserted it into Holsteins to make them polled. It worked but one of the side effects was a lowering of milk production, which no dairyman will stand for. The firm recently gave two calves, Spotigy and Burito, to the University of California at Davis where researchers plan to raise the calves and mate them to Holstein cows to measure the effects of the gene-edited trait. This is the same technology that allowed researchers at the University of Missouri to produce a line of pigs that are resistant to Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Syndrome.

For the best definition we’ve heard yet about “gene editing” versus “gene modification” we turn to a story in the Sacramento Bee where UC-Davis geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam compared the two. She likened gene editing to “changing the spelling of a word in a word-processing document, while genetic engineering would compare with pasting in a new word copied from a different document.”

Hammin’ It Up

Most researchers agree that bioengineered pork chops will beat genetically modified organisms (GMO) hamburgers to the market as there are already numerous examples of genome edited pigs in existence. In an article published in Nature, Jin-Soo Kim, a molecular biologist at Seoul National University, shared photos of hogs with huge hams that would win any swine show in America. Interestingly, Kim’s team got their inspiration from cattle, specifically a breed called Belgian Blues. These cattle have huge rear-ends because a gene that ordinarily inhibits muscle growth somehow got switched off. So the researchers induced a similar mutation in their swine and got much hammier hams and porkier pigs.

Kim wants to sell edited pig sperm in China and according to the Nature article, “China is investing heavily in gene editing and historically hasn’t been strict on regulation. Also, because the genetic modification involves a knocking out a single gene rather than transplanting one from a completely different animal, the scientists are hoping their edited sperm will get approved more quickly. But bigger pigs aren’t always better, the sows can have challenges birthing baby piglets because their extra muscle makes them so bulky.”

Freaking Out

Mention GMO’s and people start getting uncomfortable, or as author Sophia Chen wrote in Science magazine, “Start using genetic engineering technology, moving genes around or inserting one from one living thing into another, and people freak right the hell out. That’s what happened in France when they went into a panic because a lamb that was the offspring of a sheep modified to express a green fluorescent protein made it to market. In Europe, GMO’s are outright banned; in the US, lots of staple crops like corn have plenty of modified genes. But animals? That’s a line supermarkets haven’t crossed.” Yet.

With GMO plants we’ve seen proteins appear that our immune systems weren’t built to handle and critics point to diseases such as leaky gut syndrome as proof. Consumers are also worried about potential allergic reactions to GMO’s, whether plant or animal. And once GMO’s become so widespread what happens should there be a problem and there are no “clean” species to fall back on? Once we go down this path, there may be no turning back.

The low esteem that Americans currently hold for our federal government is perhaps only surpassed by their even lower opinion of companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Syngenta and others who have been known to put profits before people. Ruthlessly so, in some cases. It doesn’t help that the FDA regulates genetically modified animals as drugs rather than food.

Consumer groups such as Consumers Union and Food & Water Watch at the very least want GMO foods labeled so that consumers can make their own well informed decisions, rather than have the government make such decisions for them. “Consumers deserve to know what type of food they’re buying and an overwhelming majority has told us that they want genetically modified food labeled in poll after poll,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumers Union. He points out that while countries in Europe are banning GMO foods it’s absurd that such foods don’t even have to be labeled as such in this country.

What’s For Dinner?

It’s a fine line between “altered” and “improved”. On the positive side supporters of GM foods say that such products can help reduce hunger by being more productive and resistant to disease. They point to pesticide-resistant soybeans that require fewer insecticides, rice that has been made more nutritious, apples that don’t brown and now, cheaper salmon. After AquAdvantage salmon’s FDA stamp of approval will we now see a rush to market of other genetically modified animals? Professor Bruce Whitelaw certainly hopes so. He’s head of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. “We need to challenge our animals and we have that power now with new technology,” he says. “We can sequence the entire blueprint to make an animal better.”

The Roslin Institute has already produced swine fever-resistant pigs. Whitelaw says he created them because there are no drugs or treatments for the disease.“The only treatment is to kill the pigs and it’s a huge problem. An outbreak can really impact the pig industry.”

In the case of Whitelaw’s gene-edited pigs their genetic code was flipped to make their immune system slightly closer to a warthog’s—a wild African pig more resistant to swine fever. “It’s a swap of sequence,” says Whitelaw. “It’s a .00000001 percent change, which is a tiny portion.”

Whitelaw thinks GM pigs will be available for “the human food chain within 5 or 10 years” and he says that rather than think of these animals as frightening things we should think of them “like breeding animals for farm use which man has been doing with pets for decades. Any method of improving a crop or livestock variety could produce a hazardous food product” says Whitelaw. “So from a risk analysis perspective, do you want the new product where one to three known and understood genes are added/silenced, or the one with thousands of unknown changes? Do you want the one that went through regulatory screening before market approval? Because biotechnology creates precise changes using genes that are known and understood (as opposed to traits that can bring along other traits for a ride), and because the products of biotechology are tested for adverse effects, they appear to me to carry a lesser risk of unintended consequences than conventionally bred.”

Or think of it this way. Do you want to produce yield grade one or two choice beef carcasses by the long, expensive and arduous process of stacking generations of Angus genetics using EPDs and DNA analysis? Or do you want to play God, take a shortcut and simply add or subtract a few genes here and there?

I haven’t made up my mind about genetically modified animals yet but if I was a betting man I’d say in the not-so-distant future when the question is asked, “What’s for dinner?” the answer is apt to be unlabeled genetically modified beef.