Washington State University used CRISPR technology to produce pigs that were sold in sausage form. Is this a one-off, or a sign of things to come?
This month, the Washington State University Meat Judging Team — a student group that attends competitions for evaluating cuts of beef, pork, and lamb — hosted a novel fundraiser. They sold grilled, German-style sausages to drum up travel funds for future events. But these sausages have a twist: They’re the first genetically edited pork that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed to enter the U.S. food supply.
Tinkering with animal genes has generated no shortage of funky headlines in recent years. Did you hear about the goats implanted with spider genes? Glow-in-the-dark cats? Or how about the genetically edited pigs that grew kidneys for human organ transplants?
The pace of these advances has been a bit dizzying, so you’re forgiven if you thought gene-edited meat was already on supermarket shelves. But these sausages, the product of two years of work from a team of WSU researchers, are a significant first. They come from five male pigs that were sterilized, then implanted with stem cells to produce sperm with desirable traits they can pass on to their progeny. The research team refers to this as the creation of “surrogate sires.”
The researchers used CRISPR, a much-hyped technology that’s been referred to as “molecular scissors,” wherein very specific DNA can be deleted and replaced with desirable traits from animals in the same species. Some liken gene editing to the more traditional process of selective breeding, with the advantage of greater precision and much quicker results. Others say it’s essentially genetic modification — with all its attendant fears and baggage.
Jon Oatley, professor of molecular biosciences at WSU and leader of this research project, is in the former camp. He argues CRISPR is only used to advance traits that would arise in nature anyway. Oatley believes this is distinct from “transgenic modification” — the process many associate with typical GMOs — which inserts genes from one species into another. “Typically, livestock producers would be screening millions of animals for changes in DNA that confer a certain trait or characteristic — it can take millions of dollars and decades to accomplish,” he said. “And once they find a rare individual in a population, they just use [artificially] selective breeding to propagate it. We don’t have to do all that with CRISPR.”
Meanwhile Kevin Wells, an associate professor in University of Missouri’s Animal Sciences Research Center, has been genetically engineering livestock for decades. Wells considers CRISPR, which he has utilized in research projects himself, in no way meaningfully distinct from other types of genetic modification. There is “an artificial parsing of language such that genetic engineering using one technique is claimed to be appreciably different from genetic engineering through the use of another technique,” he said in an email.
Either way you look at it, the FDA places enormous regulatory burdens on any food product that bears a whiff of genetic alteration. It should be noted that only the five pigs in the WSU study are allowed to be sold and eaten — this very specific allowance was considered “investigational,” meaning it was provisionally permitted for research purposes. And even these allowances were not easy to obtain; Oatley said WSU paid $200,000 to obtain limited FDA approval, and this was a discounted academic rate.
Alison Van Eenennaam, extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics at UC Davis, isn’t hopeful that genetically engineered meat will be sold anytime soon in the U.S. She blames an outdated regulatory structure that doesn’t account for the rapid scientific advances made in recent years. “We need a different language because when the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was written, what, 40 years before the discovery of DNA, they were not envisioning genome-edited animals,” Van Eenennaam said. “To me, the only thing that’s going to change this is that Congress has to go and say, ‘This is stupid’ … and they have a few other things on their plates right now.”
“When the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was written, 40 years before the discovery of DNA, they were not envisioning genome-edited animals.”
Oatley shares her concerns, though perhaps is a bit more optimistic. Though the five pigs in his research project were edited for particular reproductive-related traits, he envisions any number of CRISPR uses with food animals — he hopes these sausages are just the beginning. “At Washington State University, we’re trying to use biotechnology like CRISPR to impact food animal production in a variety of ways, whether it’s their resiliency or their welfare, or growth efficiency.”
In a sense, this recent project was a test balloon, a way of showing the public — and regulators — that gene-edited meat is safe, to open the door for future projects. Pigs could be bred to avoid respiratory disease, cattle bred without horns, chicken eggs bred to avoid massive culling. “On the most basic level, there should be no concern about consuming a gene-edited animal,” said Brad Ringeisen, director of the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC Berkeley. “We have been modifying the genomes of livestock for millennia to make them tastier, healthier, or more productive.”
That said, there is still a significant way to go in convincing a still-skeptical populace that any kind of genetic modification is safe or desirable. For instance, GM salmon is something of an outlier, gaining approval from FDA but still facing significant battles in the court of public opinion. Though those salmon were transgenically modified as opposed to gene-edited, the distinction may be lost on the average consumer.
“As important as it is to understand the basics of what CRISPR can do, it’s just as important that consumers and farmers see the value in it,” said Ringeisen. “If it’s just used to increase the profits for a large corporation, there will probably be pushback. If it helps farmers adapt to a changing climate, improves animal welfare, or helps put the food that people want on the table more cheaply and sustainably, then it will be a lot easier to help people understand the value.”
Broad ethical implications aside — how were the gene-edited sausages? At the fundraising barbecue for WSU’s Meat Judging team, meat scientist Blake Foraker manned the grill. “We smoked these during the cooking process, so that’s where you see the nice mahogany brown,” Foraker told Oregon Public Broadcasting. And, according to the OPB reporter, the finished product was “smoky, and mildly salty. A good snap to the casings. Just like regular pork.”