Genetics could produce ‘hornless’ cattle

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Within a generation, thanks to the effects of ‘gene editing’, farmers could be producing naturally polled dairy cattle.

Scientists attending a major conference in York heard Scott Fahrenkrug,professor of genetics at the University of Minnesota, describe his work in producing hornless Holstein cattle.

Fahrenkrug took a short strip of DNA from the genome of Red Angus cattle, which is known to suppress horn growth, and inserted it into cells taken from an elite Holstein bull.

“We have already made millions of modified cells,” he told delegates. “Next we will use cloning technology to turn some of those cells into 40 embryos and implant them into a herd of surrogate mothers.”

This last stage would be carried out within weeks.

The end result would be animals which were an exact clone of the original Holstein bull but without horns. Their offspring would also be hornless, thus creating the potential for horns to disappear from the whole breed in just one generation.

For scientists the work could provide the fastest and most dramatic change in the appearance of cattle in recent times.

Fahrenkrug pointed out the animal welfare benefits and also the reduction of risk to those handling dairy cattle. “Creating hornless dairy cows would decrease animal suffering, protect people and cut costs,” he claimed.

Injuries caused by cattle are a regular feature on the annual statistics produced by the Health and Safety Executive, with attacks not just being confined to farm workers but members of the public being injured as well.

Professor Geoff Simm of SRUC – the Scottish rural college – said it was an example of the progress that was now being made in livestock production through gene editing.

It was still early days in the new science but he forecast the removal of genetic disorders as another possibility from the new science. In the longer term, he believed it would be also be possible to take some of the current animal diseases off the spectrum through the new techniques.

The scientific work at the University of Minnesota is now linked with similar gene editing research at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh where “pig 26”, with resistance to African Swine Fever was recently produced. Simm also chairs the Defra Farm Animal Genetic Resources Committee, which has just published a report into the threats and opportunities facing rare breeds. He said that the new science could play a part in bringing some of the current breeds under threat back into contention through the elimination of unwanted characteristics.