FFAR-Funded Industry Venture Achieves Initial Success in Ending Surgical Castration of Swine

ST. PAUL and WASHINGTON (June 19, 2019) – Male piglets are castrated to improve the quality of meat for consumers, but this practice is also a concerning animal welfare issue, as it is usually performed without pain management. Recombinetics/Acceligen and Hendrix Genetics successfully used a genome editing method to create swine that remain in a pre-pubertal state, thus eliminating the need for surgical castration. The first litter of castration-free prototype piglets using commercially relevant genetics confirms the methodology is working.

In 2017 the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a grant to Recombinetics, Inc. to end surgical swine castration. Since then, Recombinetics/Acceligen and Hendrix Genetics, pioneering companies in swine genetics, responsible farm animal breeding and precision breeding technologies, formed the “Alliance to End Surgical Castration of Swine.” This venture developed an approach that prevents sexual maturation in swine without introducing any foreign material into the genes of pigs.

“This first litter of permanently prepubescent piglets is a huge success,” said Sally Rockey, FFAR executive director. “Not only does the industry benefit, but once this technology is deployed commercially, we can eliminate an animal welfare issue while maintaining a quality product for consumers.”

Intact male pigs experience “boar taint,” which causes an unpleasant odor and unsavory taste in the resulting meat. Male pigs are castrated young to prevent boar taint; pain relievers are rarely administered. Castrated piglets show an acute physiological stress response to castration, including increased stress hormone levels, elevated heart rate and demonstrated indicators of pain that can last for four days following the procedure. The European Union has banned the practice of swine castration, but its implementation has been delayed amid challenges to the costs of implementation.

This project has successfully deleted the gene that triggers the release of hormones necessary for sexual maturation in the piglets’ DNA, preventing them from reaching puberty, and thus negating the need to castrate the pigs. The next step in this research is determining the commercial viability of castration-free pigs. Since these prototype pigs were created to be permanently prepubescent, the alliance is determining how to breed these pigs without comprising traits like feed efficiency and meat quality. The alliance comprises some of the largest pig genetic companies in the world, possessing the capacity and capabilities needed to supply these permanently prepubescent pigs to pork producers worldwide.

Research is being led by Principal Investigator Tad Sonstegard, Ph.D., Chief Executive and Scientific Officer of Acceligen, Recombinetics’ agriculture division.

“The birth of these castration-free prototype piglets using commercially relevant genetics is just another example of how Acceligen is working to deploy our breeding technologies to help producers better meet the demands of consumers and producers to improve food animal well-being,” said Sonstegard. “The technical expertise and support provided by Hypor and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research gives our alliance the capability to meet these demands with the highest standards. Together we will bring the castration-free trait to market and provide solutions to benefit the pork industry,” said Sonstegard.

“At Hendrix Genetics, we are very excited about the birth of the first castration-free piglets. This is an important step to end one of the biggest concerns of the swine industry regarding animal well-being. Within Hypor, Hendrix Genetics’ swine business unit, we are continuously exploring new opportunities to support the pork value chain with innovative and sustainable genetic solutions,” said Luis Prieto Garcia, Managing Director Swine, Hendrix Genetics.

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Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization originally established by bipartisan Congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today's food and agriculture challenges. FFAR leverages public and private resources to increase the scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships critical to enhancing sustainable production of nutritious food for a growing global population. The FFAR Board of Directors is chaired by Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, Ph.D., and includes ex officio representation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.

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CONTACT: Sarah Goldberg, 202-624-0704, sgoldberg@foundationfar.org