Animal AgTech Genetics

Prime Future 59: Will CRISPR find its legs in livestock?


My interest in science took a nose dive in high school biology when life science seemed contained to owl pellets and dead frogs, which didn’t seem to be the stuff of world changing significance. But reading the new Walter Isaacson book “The Code Breaker” on the people & events that led to the discovery of CRISPR had a much more inspiring effect than Mrs. Rigg’s biology class. Even though the book focuses on the potential uses of CRISPR in humans, my mind has been spinning around the potential uses in livestock.

First, what is CRISPR? It describes a a type of DNA sequences, more specifically:

“CRISPR systems were a way that bacteria acquired immunity to viruses. …found that bacteria with the CRISPR spacer sequences seemed to be immune from infection by a virus that had the same sequence. CRISPR associated enzymes (Cas) enable the system to cut and paste new memories of viruses that attack bacteria. They also create short segments of RNA that can guide a scissors-like enzyme to a dangerous virus and cut up its genetic material. Presto!”

If DNA is kinda there for documentation, RNA is the molecular workhorse, hustling & getting the right messages to the right places. The understanding of how CRISPR segments of DNA give RNA the information to get to work was the foundation that led scientists to ask how CRISPR could be used for gene editing by directing RNA to make good things happen. (or at least that’s my non-scientific understanding)

It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine the many ethical questions around any type of gene editing or the ways RNA could be re-directed for questionable or downright terrible uses. (Interestingly, Isaacson says the US Department of Defense is one of the major funders of CRISPR research, centered around finding ways to prevent its misuse.) But we’ll leave those questions to others, we’re interested in possibilities.

The Isaacson book focuses on human uses for CRISPR, only using the word agriculture once and almost as an afterthought. So, let’s brainstorm how a tiny little biochemical thingamajig could be used to make a potentially big impact in livestock, meat & dairy.

(Heads up: I’m not constraining this list to any nonsensical details like what’s scientifically possible 🙃)

  • Efficiency. The most obvious and least exciting use for CRISPR is to improve efficiency of production metrics like growth rates or feed conversion or carcass yield. Could beef someday have the same feed conversion as chicken, or even fish?
  • Quality improvements. Can gene editing increase meat tenderness in certain cuts? Increase flavor in pork? Eliminate that nagging issue of woody breast in chicken? Could CRISPR unlock the Honeycrisp apple of the meat case?
  • Health management. Imagine if you could eliminate Mastitis in dairy cows, or BRD in beef cattle, or ASF or PRRS in swine, or Coccidiosis in poultry…all of which have massive economic impact around the globe.
  • Methane emissions.  Could CRISPR gene editing somehow (magically?) reduce methane emissions and put that whole issue to pasture?
  • Demand response. Imagine you could use gene editing to get more of what the market is asking for, like more loin per carcass for a higher ratio of high value middle meats in beef & pork. Or let’s throw common sense to the wind – what if you could get more wings per bird? That would look pretty good in times when wings trade at $3/lb and breast meat trades at $1.

Let’s say some of those applications are scientifically possible. The next question is, what applications will be allowed? There are two stakeholder groups that will ultimately determine the future of CRISPR in livestock, and the importance of each simply cannot be overstated.

The only way CRISPR can make a meaningful impact is if both regulators and consumers embrace the technology.

  1. Regulators. What will the regulatory framework for CRISPR gene editing in livestock look like and who will oversee it? How will different countries approach it? For use in humans, scientists think of CRISPR having 3 different uses: to prevent disease, to treat disease, or for enhancements like making your offspring taller, smarter, stronger, etc. (Obviously there are varied opinions among the CRISPR scientific community about using it only for disease prevention & treatment to alleviate human suffering, rather than selecting for certain characteristics because we can.) Another screen, and debated distinction, is whether gene editing will impact only that patient/generation (somatic editing) or if it will impact that patient/generation and all future offspring (germline editing). If similar screens are applied in livestock, the list of possible CRISPR use cases would change.
  2. Consumers. If GMOs in plant breeding signals how CRISPR might be viewed in livestock, then the odds of widespread consumer acceptance of CRISPR editing in livestock are less than my chances of competing in the 2021 Olympics. The staggering advantages of GMO’s in crop production – less resource use per unit of production – have not satisfied the anti-GMO camp enough to offset their concerns of genetic modification. Good science has not been enough for a good outcome.

However, there’s one factor in livestock that isn’t part of the equation for crops, and that is animal welfare. How will the risk/reward equation adjust itself if CRISPR provides ways to reduce animal disease and therefore improve animal well being?

More broadly, what can we learn about what not to do from the GMO plant situation? Could meat companies more effectively market CRISPR enabled results than seed companies marketed GMO enabled yield increases? An ominous sign for any scientific breakthrough is the amount of COVID vaccine disinformation readily consumed via social media, then digested & regurgitated even by smart & logical people. So I don’t know, maybe we just can’t have nice things?

Ultimately societal consensus around how CRISPR should be used in humans is likely to drive the degree of acceptance of CRISPR use in livestock.

The book was particularly interesting in light of the role RNA has played in fighting COVID. Isaacson summarizes the mRNA vaccine technology, “Now scientists had found a way to enlist RNA’s most basic biological function in order to turn our cells into manufacturing plants for the spike protein that would stimulate our immunity to the coronavirus.”

There was also a lot of work done on using CRISPR as a diagnostic tool for COVID, ideally as an at home test with immediate results. Isaacson highlights the belief of some CRISPR scientists who believe the technology will ‘democratize biology for human health’ through personalized diagnostics for in home use:

“The development of home testing kits has a potential impact beyond the fight against COVID: bringing biology into the home, the way that personal computers in the 1970’s brought digital products and services into people’s daily lives and consciousness. Home testing kits could become the platform, operating system, and form factor that will allow us to weave the wonders of molecular biology into our daily lives. Developers and entrepreneurs may someday be able to use CRISPR-based home testing kits as platforms on which to build a variety of biomedical apps: virus detection, disease diagnosis, cancer screening, nutritional analysis, microbiome assessments, and genetic tests.”

Whether or not – or at what time horizon – that happens, if it can happen in human use why can’t it happen in some modified way in livestock?

What’s your hypothesis on where, how, & why CRISPR could be useful in livestock?

I’m interested in all things technology, innovation, and every element of the animal protein value chain. I grew up on a farm in Arizona, spent my early career with Elanco, Cargill, & McDonald’s before moving into the world of early stage startups.

I’m currently on the Merck Animal Health Ventures team. Prime Future is where I learn out loud. It represents my personal views only, which are subject to change…’strong convictions, loosely held’.

Thanks for being here,

Janette Barnard

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