Researchers at Climate Adaptive Genetics are breeding Angus cattle that will be white-haired instead of black for improved heat tolerance.
Climate Adaptive Genetics has 40 embryos ready to be placed in recipient cows this April. The 40 embryos have all been edited to contain the white hair gene from Silver Galloway cattle and the short hair gene from the Senepol breed.
The idea of using genetic technology to breed a more heat-tolerant Angus calf came to Warren Gill while he was attending a conference where conventional breeding methods for the task were being discussed. Gill, manager of Climate Adaptive Genetics, is also the director of the School of Agribusiness and Agriscience at Middle Tennessee State University.
Returning from the conference, Gill asked his colleague James West, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and CEO of Climate Adaptive Genetics, if it was possible to speed up the process through gene editing.
There are a variety of methods you can use to do the editing. The first step in Climate Adaptive Genetics’ process is to pull skin fibroblasts from the animal’s ear. Cells from the ear are grown in a petri dish, and the genes with fibroblasts in-culture are edited. Cloning produces the live calves.
“It is relatively straightforward,” West explains. “The tools for doing this have gotten much better over time.”
Climate Adaptive Genetics selected Silver Galloway as the source for the white hair gene because the breed also has a black hide underneath, which will help reduce sunburns. The short hair gene from Senepol cattle will further increase heat tolerance, according to their research.
“Our strong impression is that the world would love to see superior Angus genetics get into a lot more places,” Gill says.
Interest in the project has come from warmer regions around the globe, such as Brazil and northern Australia, where introduction of Angus genetics could help increase the carcass merit of the predominantly Brahman-type cattle. Until now, heat absorption from black hair color and a longer hair coat has prevented it.
“They really are having trouble with heat tolerance,” West says. “Improving heat tolerance in Angus is going to do wonderful things for production in hot climates.”
In the U.S., feedlots could benefit from the improvement in heat tolerance as well.
“The performance they get in the summertime, certainly in Texas but even in Nebraska and Colorado, could be improved,” Gill says.
However, the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could make widespread use of gene editing more difficult.
“A lot of the concern is a very vocal minority of people that aren’t really plugged in to how we’re going to feed the world,” Gill says.
GMOs are classified as having genes from other species. The process of gene editing by Climate Adaptive Genetics focuses on just using cattle DNA for improvement.
When work on the project began, a white gene from Leghorn chickens was used because of its dominance. White hair color in cattle is typically recessive.
“If you wanted to pick a really strong gene, you go to a Leghorn, but all of sudden, that raises that GMO question. It is one thing when you start moving from one species to another; we wanted to avoid that,” Gill says.
Gene editing helps decrease the amount of time spent trying to breed for a single trait. In a conventional breeding system it might take at least 15 to 20 years to achieve the change being sought.
This technology allows producers to select the trait desired and have it in a single generation rather than spending decades.
Other technologically savvy “green” investment groups have expressed interest in the work because they understand these breeding methods are an alternative to cutting down the rest of the rainforest for herd expansion.
“Brazil needs to increase their beef production,” West says. “They’ve got two ways of doing that: producing more efficient cattle or cutting down the rest of the rainforest. If you want to produce more efficient cattle, this is the way to do it.”
The addition of Angus genetics might help increase rate of gains for Nellore (Brahman) cattle in Brazil. Angus cattle can gain on average 35 lb. to 45 lb. per month versus Nellore cattle at 15 lb. to 17 lb.
“This is how cattle are going to be bred in the future,” West adds.