Scientist Report Solving Costly Hog Disease

Dec 7, 2015  | Ep4116

The journal Nature Biotechnology Monday morning published the work of University of Missouri professors who report they have genetically modified pigs to be resistant to one of the hog industry’s most troublesome diseases.

Animal science professor Kevin Wells, who co-wrote the article with peer Randy Prather, said they were able to knock out a gene that responds to the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, or PRRS virus. Researchers at Kansas State University conducted tests in which the genetically engineered hogs were deliberately exposed to PRSS, and found the animals to be 100 percent resistant.

Dr. Kevin Wells, University of Missouri, animal science: “I think it’s important long-term to try to develop transgenic animals or livestock that have lower impact on the environment and that are naturally resistant to more diseases.”

However, because of federal regulations tied to genetic modifications, the pigs are prohibited from being sold into the food system. If the government does approve the hogs for commercial release, Wells believes the process will likely take two to three years. The recently-approved genetically engineered salmon became the first modified animal to be approved as human food. The federal regulatory process required two decades.

The Agriculture Department, which also had been working on a biotech solution to the illness, says that PRSS costs the U.S. hog industry $1 billion annually. It was first identified domestically in the 1980s as “mystery swine disease.” Piglets fail to gain weight after contracting PRSS, and sows can lose their litters if pregnant.

Some experts remain leery of scientists moving too rapidly with genetic changes in the animal world. However, the federal government is considering changes to the regulatory system in an attempt to find a balance between new approaches to food production and inadvertently introducing problems.

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