A researcher in Edinburgh is leading efforts to develop gene-edited farm animals for poor farmers in Africa.
Prof Appolinaire Djikeng is developing cows, pigs and chickens that are resistant to diseases and more productive.
Among them are cattle that have been gene edited to be heat-resistant.
Details of the project were given at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC.
Prof Djikeng is the director of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health.
He believes that gene editing along with more targeted traditional cross-breeding will lead to healthy, productive livestock that will transform the lives of some of the very poorest people in the world.
“We can drive out poverty in some of the most vulnerable communities,” he told BBC News.
“We are talking about smallholders with just one, two or three animals.
“If the animals die or are not producing to their potential, it means no income for the smallholder’s family and the risk of falling into absolute poverty.”
Prof Djikeng speaks from personal experience.
His father was just such a subsistence farmer who reared pigs on a small farm in western Cameroon.
He told me how each August his father would have a pig ready to sell to pay the year’s school fees so he could go to class in September.
But one year in the mid-80s, there was an epidemic of African swine fever and Prof Djikeng’s father had no pigs to sell.
Luckily, his mother kept chickens for just such an emergency, and Prof Djikeng was able to continue his education and become an eminent scientist.
But, he told me, the incident had taught him how children’s prospects are based on livestock in Africa and how easily they can be robbed of their futures when disease strikes.
“Growing up, I understood that if you are farming and you are that vulnerable, there has to be something there to help, perhaps resilient animals, disease-resistant animals, and developing the best practices.
“At the time, the science was not good enough to make a difference. And it was my commitment to change that. It was a personal mission.”
Prof Djikeng’s centre was funded by the Gates Foundation.
Bill Gates visited some of the world-leading livestock research institutes around Edinburgh in 2014.
He saw that the key to giving farmers like Prof Djiken’s father more security was to harness research to create more resilient livestock.
Prof Djikeng and his team are working closely with African research institutes to identify local problems and to help them find solutions.
He is aware more than most that a colonialist, top-down approach would not work.
His team is currently focussing on developing chickens that are resistant to Newcastle disease and dairy cattle resistant to East Coast fever.
One approach is to make cows whose coats repel the ticks that spread the disease.
There is also a collaboration with a US firm, Acceligen, to produce cattle that are able to cope better with heat.
The company has identified a gene that makes a breed found in the US Virgin Islands, called Senapol, naturally heat-resistant.
The gene gives the animals a sparse amount of hair and they sweat more.
This gives them a slick coat and so reduces their body temperature by at least 0.5C compared with a cow without the gene.
The firm has spliced in what it calls the “slick gene” into an embryo of a Red Angus, a US dairy breed.
A calf called Genselle was born in Minnesota and transferred to a ranch in Brazil, where temperatures can reach 45C.
The firm will begin thorough scientific trials with Genselle and two non-gene-edited Red Angus calves to see what impact, if any, the change has made.
But the company’s chief scientific officer, Dr Tad Sonstegard, told BBC News that the initial signs were that Genselle was settling in well with her new surroundings.
“She acts like a normal animal with no signs of heat stress in what is now the middle of summer in Brazil. And that is very unusual,” he said.
The company has used gene editing instead of traditional cross-breeding because Senapols are relatively poor milk producers. And so it would probably take decades of cross-breeding to develop a high-milk-producing cow that was heat-resistant.
The campaign group Compassion in World Farming, has submitted evidence to a review of the technology by the Nuffield Council for Bioethics.
It opposes the use of the technology to simply boost industrial livestock production in advanced economies, because the process requires modified embryos to be surgically implanted into a surrogate animal to create a new variety of gene-edited animal.
CIWF argues that efforts to create disease-resistance could be better addressed by keeping farm animals in better conditions. And it says that using gene-edited animals to boost food production is also misconceived because, it argues, feeding cereals to animals is wasteful and intensive livestock production increased CO2 emissions.
The organisation’s research manager, Phil Brooke, told BBC News that it was vital to support smallholder farmers in Africa, who are struggling to maintain an income from their animals. “However, we see gene editing as an invasive technology to be avoided wherever possible in favour of traditional breeding,” he said.
“Whatever technology is used, it should be applied in ways that are not detrimental to the animals. “It is good to breed animals that are adapted to their environment but, for example, heat-tolerance should not be used to keep too many chickens in a shed.
“Likewise, disease-resistance shouldn’t be used to keep animals in overcrowded conditions in which disease would otherwise be likely to spread.”
Prof Bruce Whitelaw, of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, who works closely with Prof Djikeng, says that they are both sympathetic to such concerns.
“In Africa, the scrutiny by the farmer on their animals is much higher than in the western world. If you have five animals, they are really important to you an if three of them die, that is catastrophic.
“The project is to improve the genetics of animals through traditional breeding if possible and if we can’t we will use gene editing. That has to be good for the animal; in turn that has to be good for the farmer.”
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