Earlier this year, while much of North America was hunkering down for a quarantine, researchers at UC Davis were celebrating the birth of a unique calf. Cosmo the bull-calf. 

Festive balloons read, “It’s A Boy!” 

Those balloons could be bought in bulk, seeing as the whole point of this engineering process was to encourage cattle embryos to develop male traits. The researchers who created Cosmo predict that 75 percent of his offspring will be male — a benefit in the beef industry because males convert energy into muscle mass more efficiently than females do. (Cows, of course, are favored in the dairy industry, because you can’t milk a bull.) 

To produce Cosmo, researchers initially focused on CRISPR, a powerful gene editing tool that allows scientists to insert, edit, or delete a gene. CRISPR is one of a suite of genetic engineering techniques being used to create “new GMOs”  — genetically modified organisms that are sometimes marketed (falsely, according to most definitions) as non-GMO just because they don’t include foreign genetic material in the final product. However, CRISPR on its own didn’t get the job done, and Cosmo’s creators ultimately had to bring in some jellyfish DNA to make the change they desired. Cosmo is therefore unique not only because of his potential progeny, but because of the union of old and new GMO techniques.

Not their first rodeo

The use of CRISPR to genetically modify bulls is not entirely new. In 2015, the biotech firm Recombinetics developed hornless bulls using CRISPR. Hornlessness is another industry advantage, where the “stabbiness” of a bull’s headgear combined with the confined space of a commercial cattle farm cause safety concerns. Removing an animal’s horns is a widespread yet controversial practice: Horns are made of living tissue and contribute to respiratory and digestive health, amongst other things. Additionally, hornless cattle can be bred using traditional selective breeding methods. 

The GMO hornless cattle became famous not just for what they lacked (horns), but also what they gained during the genetic engineering process: non-bovine antibiotic-resistant DNA. According to Heather Lombardi, Director of Animal Bioengineering at the FDA: “When you create a DNA break, and that could be with a genome edit, the cell wants to repair itself. Ideally, it will repair itself correctly. But it can also integrate any DNA that’s around. There’s that potential.” 

The Baker City Herald reported Cosmo also has “a piece of genetic code that didn’t belong, and … more SRY, the gene that causes male traits, than intended.” The newspaper continued: “Other Crispr animals have had odd side effects: pigs with extra vertebrae, cattle that die prematurely, rabbits with huge tongues.” 

Expect the unexpected

At the Non-GMO Project, our concern is not only on the unpredictable outcomes that are currently found — and likely underreported — in GMO livestock. Our concern is also in the unknown, complex and interconnected activity of genes. A single gene can influence several different traits, a phenomenon called “pleiotropy.” Even the best scientific minds are clueless as to the function of about a fifth of our own genetic material. 

So it’s easy to see: You really aren’t being paranoid when you question the endless benefit claims of the for-profit agricultural biotech industry. They seem to be the only ones who don’t think it’s just insane to go mucking about in there — blindly, with blunt tools. 

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