Researchers Are Trying to Genetically Engineer Cows to Stay Cool

As the planet warms, researchers are trying to engineer a cow that can beat the heat

Black Angus Cow
Through genetic engineering, researchers are trying to give high-producing black Angus cows cooler white coats to face the changing climate. Lance Cheung/USDA/Flickr

While nothing might beat a great Angus beef cheeseburger, the production of said cheeseburger comes at a high environmental cost—one that will only get steeper in a changing climate, Natasha Geiling reports for Think Progress. And it's not just that cows raised for beef contribute to climate change, either. They also suffer from it—cattle breeds like Angus, a staple in the United States aren't particularly tolerant to heat. 

Now, a startup called Climate Adaptive Genetics might have a solution: engineer a cow that can stay cool while still producing a lot of meat. It’s the brainchild of two Tennessee scientists: James West, a geneticist at Vanderbilt University, and Warren Gill, an agricultural scientist at Middle Tennessee State University. Geiling explains:

Scientists and ranchers have an idea of traits that can contribute to heat tolerance — metabolic rates, ability to shed their coats, hair color — but there is no silver bullet. …Several independent studies, however, have managed to link heat tolerance — at least in part — to the color of a cow’s hair.

White and tan haired cattle seem to take the heat better than red or black haired cattle. So, Gill and West aim to create a white Angus cow with less heat absorbent white hair of other breeds but retaining the protective black hide of the Angus. Here’s how they plan to do it, in Geiling’s words:

To create a white-haired, black-hided Angus, West and Gill simply take skin cells from a champion Angus and alter its DNA, adding the genetic traits of a slick coat from an African cattle and white coat from a Scottish Silver Galloway cattle. To edit the DNA, they use a technique known as “transcription activator-like effector nuclease” — TALEN, for short — which damages existing DNA and uses the DNA that has the intended change — in this case, the white hair of the Silver Galloway — to repair the damage. The skin cell is then turned into an embryo, through cloning, and implanted into a female cow and carried to term.

Right now the project is in its early stages, editing DNA in skin cells and cloning edited embryos. The researchers haven’t produced a cow yet. If they do, to make the jump from experiment to plate, they’ll also need to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and overcome public skepticism about genetically engineered food.

Gill and West aren’t the first to try to genetically engineer cows, as Sophia Chen reports for Wired. Other researchers are employing similar genetic techniques to produce cattle without horns and hypoallergenic cows.

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