Gene editing technology may help address world hunger

Dr. Jon Oatley stands near a cow.

Roughly 15% of the human population is considered malnourished, and population increases in the coming decades will only exacerbate that issue.

Washington State University Professor Jon Oatley covered the growing problem and how genome engineering may help feed the planet in a talk titled “The Human-Animal Genomic Bond” presented Wednesday during a webinar hosted by Technology Networks.

“When we look at the number of deaths per year worldwide that is due to starvation or malnourishment, it is more than the deaths from cancer, malaria, foodborne illness and HIV/aids,” Oatley said. “There is a major global food challenge for not only addressing current issues of food insecurity but also the need to feed the world in the future.”

Research at WSU and cutting-edge technologies such as CRISPR gene editing may help to address the problem by allowing the genome and traits of livestock to be optimized for growth, disease resistance, resiliency and climate-smart performance in a variety of environments.

“With this technology, we can achieve maximal output for minimal input to produce cheap, nutritious, and safe food for feeding the 10 billion plus people that will be on the planet in less than 30 years,” he said.

The origins of animal genome engineering can be traced to more than 10,000 years ago and the domestication of various species, which was followed by the development of selective breeding, Oatley said. Selective breeding has had many benefits, including improving growth and quality of meat and milk produced by livestock. The practice has also its drawbacks, as negative traits are often unintentionally selected for and it can take decades and many generations to see the results.

CRISPR and other gene editing technologies can reduce that timeframe to months, and specific sites in the genome can be targeted to bring about favorable changes using natural processes within a cell or organism.

“The key aspect of all these gene editing approaches is that they can be applied in a manner that does not have a foreign DNA insertion to modify the genome,” Oatley said. “And they can bring about changes in the genome that can, and in many cases do, arise in nature.”

Currently, much of the genetic change in livestock production is achieved through the selective use of males deemed elite or genetically desirable and artificial insemination technology, Oatley said. The males’ sperm is collected and shipped around the world for artificial introduction into females.

This approach led to the quadrupling of milk production in dairy cows between 1950 and today. In beef cattle and other livestock production, however, use of artificial insemination has been limited because of logistical disconnects and the need for specialized techniques, Oatley said.

Surrogate Sires technology developed by a research team led by Oatley has the potential to become a new tool to disseminate elite genetics in livestock populations on a worldwide scale, Oatley said.

The team uses CRISPR to knock out a gene specific to male fertility – NANOS2 – in the animal embryos that will be raised to become surrogate sires. Males are born sterile but begin producing sperm after researchers transplant stem cells from donor animals into their testes. The sperm holds only the genetic material of the selected donor.

“We believe that Surrogate Sires will be a next-generation breeding tool across all livestock. The technology addresses a problem of achieving widespread and large-scale dissemination of sperm from genetically desirable or elite males,” Oatley said. “We’re now actively working to refine the technology and make it applicable as a breeding tool for livestock production across the globe. And hopefully this will be able to impact genetic gain and thereby improve production traits for feeding the future.”