Pigs, cattle, and other genetically modified animals are still a rarity on most dinner tables. However, a British company has taken a significant stride towards changing that by engineering various pig breeds to resist a virus responsible for the devastating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. This breakthrough technique, developed by Genus plc, has been reported in The CRISPR Journal. The company is hopeful that by year’s end, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will officially greenlight these genetically modified pigs for widespread human consumption, marking a groundbreaking development in genetic animal editing.

“It’s illogical for pigs to fall ill and perish when there’s a way to genetically prevent it,” remarked Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “This benefits breeders, pigs, and, ultimately, consumers,” she added. However, Van Eenennaam voiced concerns over the regulatory hurdles facing the company. “The FDA views DNA editing using CRISPR as a ‘new investigational drug,’ necessitating multiple applications from Genus to establish the safety, inheritability, and stability of the altered gene, as well as the resulting pigs’ resistance to the virus,” she explained. “It’s an excessively costly and unnecessary regulatory path because, unlike genetically modified organisms, which involve adding DNA from other species, gene editing works within the pig’s DNA, creating changes that could occur naturally,” she argued.

Genus’s gene-editing breakthrough tackles a virus that decimates nearly all nursing pigs, weakening even older ones. This virus, causing porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), inflicts an annual cost of about $2.7 billion on the swine industry worldwide. Eight years ago, researchers led by Randall Prather at the University of Missouri reported success in making pigs resistant to PRRS by deactivating a receptor, CD163, on pig cells, which the virus uses to establish infection. Now, Genus, specializing in breeding livestock with desired traits, appears to have scaled up this work commercially. The company’s scientists modified animals from four lines of pigs used in commercial pork production, conducting CRISPR editing on early embryos transferred into sows and then further breeding the progeny. This resulted in breeds with both copies of the CD163 gene deactivated. “This study marks the beginning of genetically modified livestock commercialization, as many breeders are likely to seek pigs resistant to PRRS,” commented Rodolphe Barrangou, a food scientist at North Carolina State University and editor-in-chief of The CRISPR Journal, though not directly involved in the research.

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