Everyone loves milk. It’s the foundation of Ice Cream, it’s an essential component in any good bowl of cereal, it’s the foundational ingredient in the creamy center that unites the Oreo, and pro tip: you can put chocolate syrup in it (I thought of that; I call it “ChocoLeche” I think it could really catch on).
Before I continue, I’d like to take a moment of silence for those cursed by the demon known commonly as lactose intolerance. Your lives are a miserable nightmare that I don’t even want to think about. #findacure .
Like I said everyone loves milk, and everyone knows it comes from cows. Few people however are aware of the fact that the cow that produces milk is different than the cow that produces the much beloved meat products such as steak and hamburgers. The Cows that are used for meat are of the Angus variety. The Cows for dairy products are Holstein Cows. One major difference that used to exist between the two is that Holstein, or dairy cows, had horns, unlike the meatier Angus cows which did not have horns. Thanks to Crispr-Cas9, scientists from UC Davis lead by Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam have rid Holstein cows of their horns, and in doing so have granted dairy cows everywhere with a higher quality of life.
The first question that needs to be answered is why would this be important. Why does it matter that we got the horns off of Holsteins? It’s important first because these horns put cows at risk from each other. Cows with horns might advertently or inadvertently use them to injure themselves, other cows or their handlers. Many previously solved this problem by dehorning the cows, which involves burning the horns off and is extremely painful for the cows. Without horns to begin with no cows need to be dehorned and fewer cows are injured. As Dr. Jeff Burkhardt puts it “From the animal welfare perspective, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam’s research is worthy of high praise: The prospect of reducing the pain associated with de-horning, which itself was introduced to eliminate risks of animals hurting themselves and others, is exactly the kind of thing that animal scientists should be doing” – Jeff Burkhardt. The Ethics of Gene editing in general is a complex and hotly debated issue right now due to the novelty of the CRISPR system, however, in this instance I feel as though the researchers are on very sound moral ground. They have made a change that safely and indisputably decreases the pain a dairy cow experiences. If you disagree I’d invite you to burn two holes in the side of your head, and reconsider whether you’re comfortable bestowing that treatment on another living creature.
The second question is how did they do this. The answer is deceptively simple. As I formerly noted, Angus cows do not possess horns. What they do possess is a gene that prevents the growth of a horn. The group of researchers at UC Davis first identified this gene and its cause. They then used CRISPR-Cas9 to cut it out of an Angus Cow’s DNA and inserted it into the DNA of a Holstein cow. The Angus cow gene prevents horn growth in Holstein cows, and the Holstein cows officially became a GMO, or genetically modified organism. A GMO that no longer has horns.