Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats CRISPR (pronounced crisper) is a relatively new breeding technology whose rudiments were discovered in Japan in 1987. It is a type of genetic modification that gives scientists the ability to make precise manipulations in the nucleus of cells, be they sperm, egg or single-cell embryos. These manipulated embryos go on to replicate their DNA, sealing it in their germ-line, meaning traits will be inherited by future generations. The technology has extensive potential, but it is controversial, especially in terms of its application to human embryos, where scientists think it could be used to nullify predispositions towards certain conditions like cancer.
Scientists in the US are studying its usefulness with regard to the problem of de-horning in cattle. As de-horning, or polling, is such a contentious issue with animal welfare groups, it seems advocates of Crispr technology have found a natural and ready application whose goal is palatable to the general public, as well as to farmers. The USDA is carrying out a study which will conclude next year:
“The optimal solution to the problem, which is recommended by governments around the world, is to breed with cattle that naturally lack horns, a trait called polled. While this breeding scheme could be easily implemented, the majority of polled cattle are suboptimal for dairy production and would represent a significant setback in dairy production that would take decades to recover. There is a simple, direct, rapid solution - gene-editing. Gene-editing is a technology that can seamlessly combine the desired traits of two unrelated animals without crossbreeding, thus preserving the present day production from dairy cattle while eliminating horns with genetic methods.”
Within the cattle industry the potential of Crispr is clear to many. Consultant veterinarian and renowned Pedigree Limousin breeder Doreen Corridan has been following the development of Crispr intently. She told That's Farming:
“From a fertility and genetics point of view, Crispr offers huge potential, the ability to pick certain traits. A polled gene is easier to work with than other traits. From a welfare point of view it would obviously be very beneficial to breed polled animals so breeders in Europe are following developments closely.”
Researchers are using Crispr technologies in many other agricultural applications, inserting such traits as drought resistance and yield boosts in crops. These include canola, corn, soya, rice and wheat. It is even hoped that the development of non-allergen peanuts is possible.
Critics of Crispr technologies label it 'extreme engineering' and have cautioned against its use until extensive testing has been completed. They worry that it is being fast-tracked before its full impact has been established. Greenpeace, in its policy statement, said: “Just as [in] ‘traditional’ genetic engineering, gene editing techniques can induce unintended changes in genetic material even if only one or a few base pairs have been altered.”
Greenpeace is against the EU allowing Crispr technologies to be used here, also as they worry that Crispr is a back-door for traditional genetically modified crops:
“Gene-editing techniques may be more precise than ‘traditional’ genetic engineering in their positioning of the intended alteration to genetic material. However, the newly created organisms can still display unexpected and unpredictable effects, which can have implications for their food, feed or environmental safety. If these new techniques were to be exempted from the EU’s regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there would be no requirement to detect and assess such unintended changes or to assess any potential negative safety effects.’
Crisper whatever your views is something you’ll be likely to hear of in the coming years.