Dubious CRISPR experiments with calves

Publication involving German national institution raises several questions

17. September 2020

17 September 2020 / A new publication shows that experiments using new genetic engineering techniques were conducted in Germany on cattle. Using a newer version of the so-called CRISPR/Cas gene scissors, the aim of the experiments was to produce hornless dairy cows. To achieve this, cells were taken from the skin of a breeding bull. These cells were subsequently genetically engineered. Afterwards, in an approach similar to that used in cloning ‘Dolly the sheep’, the nuclei from the cells were transferred into ova (egg cells). The only calf born alive from these experiments had no horns, but did have severe organ damage. It died on the day it was born.

The experiments were funded through an organisation affiliated to the German animal breeding industry. The experiments were conducted by researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute, a national institution under the supervision of the German Ministry of Agriculture.

None of the animals had a happy end: 70 clones were generated in the lab, of which only nine developed into embryos that were then implanted into surrogate mother cows. Three of those embryos did not result in pregnancy, they died in the uterus. Four cows had serious complications due to the pregnancy and lost their calves. One calf was killed prematurely for further examination. Only one calf was born alive via caesarian section, but died the same day. Nevertheless, the researchers state that their experiments were successful since they demonstrated the technical applicability of a specific variant of CRISPR/Cas in cattle.

There was no detailed investigation into the causes of the severe health impacts. However, the researchers assume that the method of cloning largely contributed to the negative outcome of these trials.

These were not the first experiments with cattle involving new methods of genetic engineering: in recent years, experiments in the USA to produce hornless cattle with TALENs technology have made headlines. In this case, due to the method of genetic engineering, genes conferring resistance to antibiotics were inserted unintentionally into the genome of the cattle. This mishap remained undiscovered for several years, until finally the cattle and their offspring had to be killed in 2019. There are further experiments being carried out with CRISPR/ Cas on species, such as cattle and pigs, whereby unintended genetic changes and health problems are a regular occurrence.

According to Testbiotech, such experiments are highly problematic from the perspective of animal welfare because they cause animal suffering and pain without sufficient reason. Furthermore, the involvement of researchers from a federal institution raises questions about the independence of the research institute and the responsibilities of the German Ministry of Agriculture.

Christoph Then, Tel +49 151 54638040, info@testbiotech.org

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