Ruminating with RealAg — Ep. 7: Genetically Modifying Cattle

This Ruminating with RealAg podcast takes us back to the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Saskatoon, where we hear from Suzanne Bertrand, deputy director general at the International Livestock Research Institute, on the differences between Canadian and African adoption of genomics technology, and how genetically modified cattle could combat African Sleeping Sickness.

Related: Julie Borlaug Kicks Off International Biotechnology Conference in Saskatoon

For those interested on more on this topic, I’ve included a post I wrote for Genome Alberta, and some tweets from a recent AgChat on twitter, where I asked if disease-immune genetically engineered livestock in the global south would be accepted by the public.

More of RealAgriculture’s coverage of ABIC.

Skip to Tweets | Skip to ILRI Poster | Skip to Podcast

This portion of the post originally appeared on Genome Alberta.

Genetic engineering could go beyond shrinking or eliminating horns in cattle. It could be the much-needed antidote to one of Africa’s greatest zoonotic diseases.

Roughly 22% of cattle in Africa die before three months of age. They, like 6% of their adult counterparts are lost to disease. For those that survive, many will never be good producers, carrying the burden of disease without relief, increasing their susceptibility to both ectoparasites and endoparasites.

African trypanosomiasis, most well known for its affect in humans, is one such disease, causing $11.4 billion (U.S.) in cattle losses per year and killing up to 60 000 people annually. It’s chronic, debilitating and difficult to control.

The disease is vectored by roughly 30 Glossina species, or tsetse flies, which are found almost exclusively south of the African Sahara. Host species include cattle, humans and domestic and wild animals, with the latter two acting as reservoirs.

In humans, trypanosomiasis most commonly affects rural populations, causing a condition most commonly referred to as Sleeping Sickness. Initially, the trypanosomes multiply in subcutaneous tissues, blood and lymph, indicated by symptoms of fever, headaches and joint pain. As the parasites spread across the blood-brain barrier, the symptoms worsen to include behavioural changes, loss of coordination, confusion and – as the name suggestions – sleep cycle disturbances.

According to the World Health Organization, new cases of Sleeping Sickness have dropped, and in 2012 there were 7215 cases recorded, a fifty-year low. The improvement is attributed to sustained control efforts, like odour-baited traps and the use of sterile male tsetse flies (with the understanding that females only mate once). Pour-on insecticides and spot treatments are still widely used as well. But techniques like bush clearing and eliminating wild animal reservoirs have been ostracized for their impacts on the environment.

Solutions targeting the disease once established have been difficult, as the disease lives in blood lymph. That has the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Nairobi, Kenya, looking at other options, namely genetic engineering.

“If we know that this breed has some resistance or tolerance, why not do genome testing and editing,” Suzanne Bertrand, deputy director general, ILRI, asked the Agricultural Biotechnology International Congress this week.

The long-term goal of the ILRI is to generate genetically modified cattle: cattle that carry a gene that “imparts resistance to African trypanosomes.” The research has progressed beyond identifying a gene with that potential. One species of baboon was identified as immune, and the gene has already been successfully transferred to mice and sheep. One bull, of two cloned (the other died days after birth), is being reared with the hope of carrying total resistance.

“The goal is not to produce transgenic animals more and more,” Bertrand said. “The goal is to produce breeding herds with the total immunity and eventually to have the national herds carrying the immunity.”

On when this technology will come to North America, Bertrand emphasized that this is not a technology to use for meat production.

“If there’s no need, it shouldn’t come,” she said.

The ILRI still has a ways to go until the technology has an impact on cases of sleeping sickness. Once total immunity is identified in the genetically engineered animals, it will take at least fifteen years to develop a breeding herd. Then, the work will expand into other susceptible breeds.

The hope is that eventually, all indigenous cattle breeds will have complete immunity, and all thanks to the genes of a baboon.


With biotechnology clearly on my mind, and knowing the AgChat Foundation would be covering animal welfare in their chat on October 8th, I decided to take this question to the public:

Here are some of the responses:


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