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Future uses of transgenic cows

AgResearch scientists have generated transgenic cows with biomedical and agricultural applications. Here, we list potential applications of transgenic cows and describe how a transgenic farm might look in the future.

Transgenic cows at AgResearch

Transgenic cows are genetically modified (GM) cows that have an extra gene or genes inserted in their DNA. For the last 10 years, scientists at AgResearch have been developing techniques to make transgenic cows, and they’ve successfully generated cows that produce transgenic proteins in their milk.

Uses of transgenic cows

There are many potential uses of transgenic cows in biomedicine and agriculture.

Biomedicine

  • Making therapeutic proteins
    Transgenic cows can be used as ‘biofactories’ to produce human therapeutic proteins (proteins that are used to treat diseases).

    In June 2006, the first therapeutic protein made in a transgenic animal was approved for use in Europe and the USA. ATryn®, a human antithrombin protein, is made in transgenic goats. The protein prevents blood clots in patients who don’t make their own version of this protein.

    At AgResearch, they’ve generated cows that produce human myelin basic protein. Treatment with human myelin basic protein may help reduce the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

    Get information sheet: Transgenic cows making therapeutic proteins

  • Modelling disease
    Transgenic animals can provide animal models of human disease to help researchers find new treatments. Usually, small transgenic animals, such as mice or rats, are used for this type of research.
  • Making functional foods
    Milk composition can be altered to make a functional food. For example, researchers have shown that minor proteins in milk (such as lactoferrin) could protect humans against infection and improve gut health.

Agriculture

  • Improving food quality or making novel food products
    Improving the quantity or quality of the milk or meat from cows may be of value. For example, milk with extra casein requires less processing to make into cheese and will have increased calcium levels.

    Get information sheet: Transgenic cows making modified milk

  • Improving animal health
    Transgenic technologies could be used to improve animal health by increasing resistance to diseases. For example, transgenic dairy cows expressing lysostaphin (an antimicrobial) in their milk show greater resistance to the mastitis-causing bacteria S. aureus. Mastitis is a common bacterial infection that can lead to severe health problems in cows.
  • Environmental sustainability
    Farming has a big impact on our environment. Transgenic animals may offer one way of reducing the environmental impact by improving farming efficiencies and reducing pollution. An example is the Enviropig™. These transgenic pigs have an additional gene that helps them digest plant material. This lessens their need for dietary supplements and reduces environmental pollution.

The future of transgenic cows in New Zealand

Transgenic cows are unlikely to replace New Zealand’s dairy herd. They could, however, be used for specific purposes such as generating therapeutic proteins to treat human disease. A small, contained herd of transgenic cows would generate a higher profit due to the value of proteins they can produce, although there would be increased compliance costs for keeping animals in a containment facility.

Acceptability of transgenic technology

In general, the biomedical applications of transgenic technology are more widely accepted than agricultural applications. However, groups that do not approve of using animals for commercial food production are unlikely to accept any transgenic technologies. The future direction of transgenic research will be influenced by ongoing discussion and evaluation of ethical and societal issues that are raised.

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