A deadly disease

The GMO debate has been going on ever since scientists started to tinker with the genetics of our food. Changing the building blocks of life is highly unethical to some, but it also represents the best hope for bigger, better, and safer food products.

However, gene editing is useful for much more than just food creation. It can allow us to combat—to end—diseases.

Case in point, researchers from the University of Missouri and Kansas State University developed pigs resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRSS), a (previously) incurable disease that plagues hog barns.

Pigs that contract PRSS have extreme difficulty reproducing, don’t gain weight, and have a high mortality rate. To date, no vaccine has been effective, and it costs farmers more than $660 million annually. Moreover, it spreads rapidly through swine populations and often forces hog farmers to euthanize whole barns at a time.

“(PRSS) is a devastating disease,” said Kristin Whitworth, a research scientist who worked on the project. “It causes persistent infection. It causes abortions in pigs so they lose their litter. It causes a lot coughing and the pigs get very sick.”

When PRSS enters the pig’s body, it spreads with the help of a protein, CD163. The team genetically edited the gene that makes this protein so it never gets produced. Once removed, the virus could no longer spread from pig-to-pig.

The GMO battle

While the development has demonstrated at least one beneficial use of genetic engineering, it is still facing legal hurdles with the FDA. GMOs are still a hot-button issue, especially in the US. Scientists have been able to create and modify a whole host of animals, but approval for market has been slow in coming.

Only one animal with genetic modification has gotten FDA approval: A faster growing salmon made by AquaBounty Technologies Inc., and it took the company 20 years to be able to clear with the FDA.

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