Genetically modified animals have potential for food and medicine, with caution

Nanotechnology and synthetic biology are emerging tools that can help feed a burgeoning world population and stave off food-borne illnesses, stated a group of researchers on 21 February at the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Diego.

If adopted by industries, those technologies will allow scientists to insert desirable genes and remove others, or engineer the production of new molecules in animals used for food. The shift likely will increase the availability of genetically modified and transgenic livestock, or those with "foreign" genes, for human consumption.

"We need to meet the food requirements of the world," said Rodney Hill, associate professor of physiology at the University of Idaho, in an interview. "We have a moral obligation to allow our science to assist that need."

Hill spoke at a symposium on "Healthy and Plentiful Animal-Based Foods: Science Offers New Possibilities," along with other leading scientists who discussed the benefits and risks of genetically modifying livestock.

Waves of technological breakthroughs emerged after the United States Food and Drug Administration provided final guidance on the regulation of genetically modified animals in January 2009.

Researchers developed nanotools to work on scales smaller than 100 nanometers—several thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. These tiny tools can insert non-native genes into the genetic material of animals.

Scientists also used synthetic biology to engineer and combine certain molecules to produce desired outcomes, such as creating useful proteins that can regulate different functions in cells.

Since many of those techniques aim to increase animal health and productivity, they could lead to increasing numbers of transgenic animals in the food supply.

With time, scientists might test unexpected uses for these tools, including inserting a water-retention gene from a camel into a cow, or inserting bacterial-resistance genes from scavenger species such as vultures into livestock for disease resistance. Other possibilities include adding nutrients to livestock as a way to improve nutrient delivery to consumers who eat the meat.

"Imagination and money are the only things limiting the real-world applications of these technologies," said Kevin Wells, assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri.

Existing applications include genetic engineering of dairy cows to produce lysostaphin—a natural antibacterial to common staph bacteria—to reduce infections.

As with other genetically modified organisms, researchers must take health policy and social perceptions of risk into account.

Scientists and policy makers should be aware of unintended consequences, said Michele Garfinkel, policy analyst and associate professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute. She called attention to growing concerns about negative effects from these new technologies, including the potential for creating genetically modified bacteria and viruses for the purposes of bioterrorism. Lab safety, possible harmful effects on the environment, distribution of benefits, and ethical and religious issues are other areas of concern.

In general, though, people have a neutral perception of the risk that nanotechnology poses, according to research by Susanna Priest, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada.

Perhaps the successful use of nanotechnology in detecting medical problems and delivering medicine to patients with heart illnesses helps to hold off negative perceptions, Priest noted. But negative public reactions might rise once people start learning more about the processes involved, she observed.

Such worries should not be dismissed, the researchers said.

"There's a need to tell people about what we're doing," Priest said. "We need to characterize and minimize risks rather than put in them the closet and pretend they're not relevant to the food supply."

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Marianne English is an undergraduate at the University of Georgia studying biological anthropology and journalism. She enjoys writing about a variety of topics, including biology, wildlife, the environment, natural history and public health. Contact her at english.marianne@gmail.com.

Feb. 24, 2010

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