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Tasty transgenics

AquaBounty Technologies made big news when they announced they were getting close to approval for their fast-growing transgenic salmon, but this isn't the only transgenic project with its eyes on our food supply.

Jennifer Welsh

AquaBounty Technologies made big news when they announced they were getting close to approval for their fast-growing transgenic salmon, but this isn't the only transgenic project with its eyes on our food supply. Several other projects are underway to develop transgenic animals that may eventually make their way into agriculture's mainstream and end up in your grocery aisle. And scientists aren't just interested in bigger animals -- they're also looking at making meat that's more environmentally friendly, and healthier.

A cleaner pig

Enviropigs
Image: University of Guelph

The stereotype of pigs as dirty animals is being challenged by the University of Guelph's "Enviropig," which, while growing at a normal rate, produces less waste and needs less food. The pig was specifically created to solve the environmental run-off problems of pig farming. Normal pigs can't digest phytate, which makes up around 50-75 percent of phosphorus present in cereal grains,...

Fat-friendly meats

Omega-3 piglets
Image: Jing Kang,
Harvard Medical School

Omega-3 fatty acids are trendy, and for good reason -- their consumption is linked to better cardiovascular health and lower risks of diabetes and cancer. But they can be hard to come by in a land-locked diet, since they are only produced by plants and lower life forms, such as algae in the ocean. Farm animals fed a diet consisting mainly of grain, soybeans and corn don't consume much omega-3, and naturally contain only omega-6 fatty acids, which don't have the same health benefits. "We realize the huge imbalance in omega-6 to omega-3 in the human diet," said Jing Kang at Harvard Medical School. "We want to decrease the omega-6 and increase the omega-3." Kang has inserted the fat-1 gene from C. elegans into pigs, which allows them to convert the omega-6 fats found in their normal feed into omega-3s. Kang is currently working on other animals, such as chicken and fish, and also vegetables which don't usually contain omega-3, like tomatoes. Kang is looking for a company to commercialize the technology, and to help with the time and expense of dealing with regulatory issues, and couldn't offer a projection of when the food could hit the market.

A fatter salmon

An AquaAdvantage Salmon and
its non-transgenic sibling

AquaBounty Technologies

The AquaAdvantage salmon grows twice as fast as regular salmon, reaching full growth in captivity by 200 days, instead of 400. The salmon grows faster because researchers inserted the gene for a growth hormone from the Chinook salmon (which grows much faster) into Atlantic salmon eggs. In theory, the AquaAdvantage salmon could provide relief to the ongoing pressure on natural fisheries, and, because it is grown in pens built on land, cut down on the environmental impact of shipping fish from the coasts. The AquaAdvantage salmon is the transgenic animal closest to getting FDA approval for human consumption, having passed five sections of the FDA's seven-part application. The company has submitted all the remaining required information, and is expecting a decision soon. AquaBounty is also working on implementing the same growth-hormone technology in tilapia, shrimp and other important aquacultures, said Val Giddings, a consultant who worked for the food and agriculture division of the Biotechnology Industry Organization for a decade and has worked with AquaBounty.

Big fish, mutant cows, flu-resistant birds

Terry Bradley, an aquaculture researcher at the University of Rhode Island, has produced rainbow trout with six-pack "abs" and hulk-like shoulders by blocking the fish's myostatin gene, which inhibits muscle differentiation and growth. BioDak, LLC is producing cows that are resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (the prion-based "mad cow disease"), as well as cows that don't produce antibodies, for research purposes. Laurence Tiley from Cambridge Veterinary School is working with Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute to produce chickens that are immune to the flu virus, hopefully decreasing the impact of avian flu on chicken stocks. Their technique includes introducing the antiviral protein Mx into the chickens and inserting small RNAs to disrupt the flu virus.
 

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