Genetically engineered animals

The first genetically engineered mammals were developed even before the first transgenic plants. In 1974, it was announced that the first genetically engineered mice had been created. In 1985, the first genetically engineered sheep and pigs were presented to the public. At present, transgenic fish are awaiting approval in the US, and in Europe we are looking at the possibly imminent release of transgenic flies into the environment.

Genetically engineered animals in agriculture

In the 1980 and 1990s, scientists were aiming to make some pigs resistant to influenza, whilst other pigs were being manipulated with growth hormone genes. Possible scenarios included sheep that would produce wool without having to be sheared, cows that would produce human breast milk and pigs with improved digestive systems. A significant boost to this trend was provided by the cloned sheep "Dolly". Before Dolly, each genetically engineered animal was a single event, but now it became possible to produce largely identical copies of the animals.

In 2015, transgenic salmon developed by AquaBounty / Intrexon was allowed on the market in the US. AquaBounty transgenic salmon produce additional growth hormones and can therefore supposedly grow eight times faster than normal salmon.

Insects are also being genetically engineered: The British company Oxitec, has developed genetically engineered insects for various uses. Recently, Oxitec filed a request for an experimental release of genetically engineered olive flies in Spain. The intention is that the male transgenic flies will mate with the female native flies, and thereby introduce their artificial genes into the native population. The Oxitec flies are genetically engineered so that any female offspring are programmed to die at the larval stage, while the male offspring survive and continue to mate. As a result, it is thought that the population of native olive flies will decrease; it may even become extinct. Olive flies are known to spread rapidly in a suitable habitat. In practice though, this amounts to an experiment with no controls in place.

Various stakeholders are already lining up and preparing to deliver further products. The US-company, Intrexon, holds patents on mammals, whose gene regulation is controlled by synthetic insect DNA, including mice, rats, monkeys and chimpanzees, and also cattle, goats, pigs and sheep. Intrexon is now a majority shareholder in AquaBounty Technologies, and also owns a number of other companies specialised in the cloning of livestock. In 2015, Intrexon bought up the UK company Oxitec which is producing genetically engineered insects.

Genetic engineering and animal welfare

Genetic engineering in mammals is certainly problematic from an ethical point of view. As a number of publications show, the methods involved are inherently tied to negative consequences and suffering for the animals concerned. If traits are established in livestock to render higher performance (such as more milk or meat), these can undoubtedly cause specific animal welfare problems.

The number of animal experiments using genetically engineered animals has been steadily increasing for several years. Almost one million such animals are sacrificed in Germany every year. At present, new technologies such as the deactivation of genes (“knock-out”) or the insertion of new synthetic DNA (“knock-in”) are pushing up the numbers even further. Additionally, more and more patents are being granted on genetically engineered animals for use in experiments. In Europe, more than 1500 patents on animals have been granted so far – even on genetically engineered chimpanzees. The expectation of receiving such patents on laboratory animals and their availability creates additional economic incentives to perform even more experiments on animals.