Monday, November 23, 2015

China genetically customizing goats, other animals

China’s western Shaanxi Province is known for rugged windswept terrain and its coal and wool, but not necessarily its science. Yet at the Shaanxi Provincial Engineering and Technology Research Center for Shaanbei Cashmere Goats, scientists have just created a new kind of goat, with bigger muscles and longer hair than normal. The goats were made not by breeding but by directly manipulating animal DNA—a sign of how rapidly China has embraced a global gene-changing revolution.

Geneticist Lei Qu wants to increase goatherd incomes by boosting how much meat and wool each animal produces. For years research projects at his lab in Yulin, a former garrison town along the Great Wall, stumbled along, Qu’s colleagues say. “The results were not so obvious, although we had worked so many years,” his research assistant, Haijing Zhu, wrote in an e-mail.

That changed when the researchers adopted the new gene-customizing technology called CRISPR–Cas9, a technique developed in the U.S. about three years ago. CRISPR uses enzymes to precisely locate and snip out segments of DNA, much like a word-processor finding and deleting a given phrase — a process known as “gene-editing.” Although it is not the first tool scientists have used to tweak DNA, it is by far more precise and cheaper than past technologies. The apparent ease of this powerful method now raises both tantalizing possibilities and pressing ethical questions.

Once the goat team began to deploy CRISPR, their progress was rapid. In September Qu and 25 other collaborating scientists in China published the details of their research in Nature’s Scientific Reports. In early-stage goat embryos they had successfully deleted two genes that suppressed both hair and muscle growth. The result was 10 goat kids exhibiting both larger muscles and longer fur—designer livestock—that, so far, show no other abnormalities. “We believed gene-modified livestock will be commercialized after we demonstrate [that it] is safe,” predicts Qu, who envisions this work as a simple way to boost the sale of goat meat and cashmere sweaters from Shaanxi. [Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

The research is just one of a recent flurry of papers by Chinese scientists that describe CRISPR-modified goats, sheep, pigs, monkeys and dogs, among other mammals. In October, for instance, researchers from the country discussed their work to create unusually muscled beagles in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology. Such research has been supported via grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science and Technology as well as provincial governments. To read more, click here.


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