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The Next Target for Gene-Editing Innovation: Cows Making Lactose-Free Milk

A bunch of cartons of lactose-free milk

Technological innovations in gene editing have rapidly progressed in recent years. Since the introduction of CRISPR Cas-9 methods, opportunities to explore new research areas have increased significantly. (Dig deeper into the advances in CRISPR gene editing in this Bold story.) This has included cloning technologies that utilize gene alterations to create enhanced results. This has involved gene cloning to introduce specific genetic enhancements in plants. It has also involved reproductive cloning where entire animal clones are produced with new abilities.

Understanding this, scientists are now beginning to accelerate discoveries using cloning technologies for lifestyle improvements. Many of these pursuits are examining how reproductive cloning can address agricultural needs of a growing global population. Others are also trying to develop animal clones that offer safer and more nutritious products through gene editing techniques. Most recently, scientists in Russia have successful cloned a cow that produces lactose-free milk. Such developments highlight the potential impact that cloning technology offers.

“The development of life sciences takes a significant amount of time, and it is not like other industries where things can be accomplished very quickly…The world has entered the cell therapy era, and cell therapy will become the new pillar of medical treatment in the future.” – Xiaochun Xu, Chief Executive Officer of Boyalife

Cloning Technology and Lactose-Free Cows

Over the last year, Moscow’s Skoltech Institute of Science and Technology successfully cloned a calf that produces lactose-free milk. In collaboration with Moscow State University, scientists used gene editing techniques to alter 2 specific genes. These genes were responsible for making the protein Beta-Lactoglobulin, which triggers lactose intolerance in many individuals. In fact, roughly 70 percent of the population suffers from some degree of lactose intolerance. Understanding this, the researchers hoped to create a new cow species capable of producing lactose-free milk. Using cloning technology and gene editing methods, they were successful in their pursuits.

The scientists started by altering these specific genes within  bovine fibroblast cells. The nucleus of these cells, which contained the new edited DNA, was then placed within bovine egg cells. Researchers then implanted these altered cells into the uterus of 31 different cows. Of these, one was able to give birth to a healthy, non-lactose-producing calf. And that calf is now 14 months old and doing quite well. If these results can now be replicated using the same cloning technology, then the potential impact could be significant. Of course, these gene editing and cloning procedures aren’t cheap, especially when successful yields are so low. In order to scale these new breeds of cows, methods will have to improve substantially.

“While genetically modified mice are a fairly common phenomenon, modifying other species is exponentially harder, due to higher costs and difficulties in breeding and husbandry.” – Petr Sergiev, Professor at Skoltech Institute

Other Bovine Genetic-Engineering Technology Pursuits

The cloning technology used in bovine research in Russia is being used for other purposes as well. Several research labs are exploring gene editing and cloning procedures to improve beef products. Some are exploring lab-grown meats in an effort to make Wagyu steaks as well as ground beef. (Are lab-grown meats a betrayal to meat lovers? Check out this Bold opinion story.) Others are using cloning technology in hopes of developing enhanced breeds of cows for higher quality beef products. Boyalife Genomics is one such company actively involved in these pursuits. Though the progress is slow, they expect to revamp the beef industry over time. Through gene editing, a number of advantages in beef production can be enjoyed.

Other scientists are using cloning technology to not only improve beef production but also bovine wellness. At the Ruakura Research Center in New Zealand, researchers have used gene editing to change cows’ skin colors. Instead of having black patches, they can alter genes that make these patches gray. Why is this beneficial? Because black absorbs more heat, which can cause cattle to be less fertile and productive. This is especially true as temperatures rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is achieved by eliminating a single pre-melanosome protein in the cattle’s DNA. Not only does this allow higher yields, but the cloning technology also reduces the heat stress in the cattle.

“Projected onto a global scale, even modest improvements of eco-productivity from color-diluted cattle would translate into substantial environmental benefits.” – Goetz Liable, Ruakura Research Center in Hamilton, New Zealand

The Expansion of Genetic-Engineering Technology in Animals

The original animal clone was created about 25 years ago when cloning technology successfully created Dolly the sheep. Since then, however, a number of different animals have been cloned for various reasons. Notably, cows have received a great deal of attention, with gene editing offering potential for enhanced super foods. But other uses of cloning technology involve the preservation of endangered species and the availability of special animals. Of course, this is a much more expensive endeavor compared to species preservation and training efforts. But for the most part, these pursuits have merit and valued intentions.

A person holding up a glass of milk, mocking some cows
Thanks to advances in genetic-engineering technology, you can drink lactose-free milk straight from the cow.

In terms of endangered animals, two specific uses of cloning technology involve the black-footed ferret and the Przewalski’s horse. Both were near extinction when preserved DNA from frozen samples allowed clones of the species to be created. Not only did these efforts allow greater numbers of these animals to exist. They also help increase genetic diversities within the species, increasing future survivability. In regards to animals with special talents, cloning technology is also producing drug-detecting canines. Unlike trained dogs, which have a 50% failure rate in the field, cloned dogs have over an 80% success rate.

The Ethics of Gene Editing in Animals

Whenever discussions about gene editing and cloning takes place, ethical concerns are soon to follow. It is important to recognize that animal cloning technology cannot be successfully used for humans. Our cellular structure is such that the same processes using in animal cloning cannot be used. However, the bigger ethical issue regarding gene editing and cloning in animals involves cost. Cloning technology is expensive, and the yield of current methods is far from satisfactory. Thus, ethics would not encourage using precious resources for these methods on a larger scale currently. But with continued scientific improvements, this may potentially change, inviting a variety of new possibilities for the future.


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