With the world’s population projected to reach ~10 billion in 30 years, scientists are working to use genetic technologies to address future food security problems. They have had some success, such as using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing process to develop more disease-resistant pigs, but the advance is useless if the pigs cannot be brought to market and if no one will eat their bacon.

Jon Oatley, professor and director of WSU’s Center for Reproductive Biology, recognized early on that using genetic technologies on food animals presents social and ethical challenges that cannot be solved through research alone. Last year, Oatley brought forward the idea of gathering experts to tackle these issues, and this week the national task force on gene-editing in livestock had its first meeting.

“We can develop all kinds of neat and effective tools in a research and development setting, but none of it will ever make it into the marketplace or production practice unless we can solve two major barriers: public acceptance and federal policy,” said Oatley. “Those aren’t issues that are addressed in the lab. Those are issues that are addressed through a task force.”

Jon Oatley portrait
Jon Oatley

Last September, Oatley and Bryan Slinker, then dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, joined colleagues at a gene-editing summit in Washington D.C., and this June the 11-person national task force was announced, bringing together scientists and bioethicists along with industry and federal officials to map out recommendations for regulating the emerging technology with appropriate safeguards and procedures.

“The potential for gene editing to dramatically boost food security globally and reduce the burden on natural resources is enormous, but it must be done carefully and ethically,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, which established the task force together with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

The task force is chaired by Noelle Crockett, a geneticist and president of Utah State University. Oatley serves on the six-person steering committee which includes colleagues from Auburn University; University of California, Davis; University of Missouri; University of Tennessee; and Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Public perception, or misperception, of gene editing is one of the main issues the task force will address. Many people incorrectly conflate gene editing with the more controversial gene manipulation. It’s a flawed comparison because gene editing does not combine DNA from other species—nor does it seek to create anything that would never happen in nature. Instead, gene editing seeks to bring about desirable changes in an animal species that could occur naturally but may take decades using selective breeding.

“People do not always realize that humans have been genetically changing animals ever since they were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago,” said Oatley. “Gene editing creates changes to DNA that could have arisen in nature and through selective breeding which can take decades to materialize. We’re just speeding up the process and making it more precise.”

Gene-editing can be used to improve animals’ disease resistance, making them healthier and reducing the need for antibiotics, which can lead to other problems such as antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. It can improve animal welfare by editing out undesirable traits, such as horns on cattle that are currently manually removed. Better, healthier livestock also means more and better food for people, but the technology can also be used to directly bolster animal growth and reproduction performance to improve the food supply, which is expected to be a critical need in the coming decades.

Researchers estimate that agricultural output will need to increase by 60% to keep up with the population growth in the next 30 years, while at the same time dealing with shrinking availability of critical resources including water and grazing lands.

WSU scientists are already at work on these problems with the support of the Functional Genomics Initiative (FGI), a five-year investment from the university totaling nearly $5 million. Starting in 2016 as part of the Grand Challenges, the Initiative has helped build core infrastructure and a cohort of faculty to drive research in gene editing technology as well as address social and ethical approaches to gene-enhanced food animals. The Initiative has helped support research in Oatley’s lab, which has made advances in creating surrogate livestock – male pigs, cattle and goats that can carry donor sperm and spread advantageous genes more quickly.

The national task force is also one of the outcomes of the FGI investment.

“It’s a tremendous honor and recognition for Dr. Oatley and for WSU to be part of this much-needed national task force,” said Dr. Dori Borjesson, the new dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “The Functional Genomics Initiative has helped place WSU at the forefront of this field, and I look forward to helping WSU continue to lead in this field which is so critical to our future food security.”