FFAR Grant Evaluates Gene Editing to Improve Heat Resistance in Cattle

WASHINGTON (August 31, 2020) – More than half of the global cattle population is raised in sub-tropical or tropical environments. In these tropical environments, cattle often undergo heat stress, which decreases milk and meat production. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $748,545 Seeding Solutions research grant to Acceligen, a subsidiary of Recombinetics Inc., to examine how genetic alterations can improve heat resistance in cattle. Semex and Acceligen provided matching research funds for a total investment of $1,497,641.

Cattle, if not adapted to heat, can exhibit an extreme physical reaction to heat stress, including reductions in feed intake and milk production, slowed growth, and increased disease susceptibility. These reactions decrease sustainable production and can result in severe illness or even death.

“As global temperatures continue to increase due to climate change, cattle experience heat stress more frequently and more intensely – even in traditionally temperate, non-tropical environments,” said FFAR’s Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey. “Adapting cattle to withstand the effects of heat stress is critical to ensuring global food security.”

To date, most research to reduce heat stress in cattle has focused on improving housing conditions, using feed additives and other non-genetic interventions. This grant is exploring genetic approaches to reduce heat stress.

Acceligen researchers and collaborators at the University of Florida are focusing on cattle that carry mutations, or gene variants, in the prolactin receptor gene (PRLR) that result in a slick coat or short hair. The shorter hair improves heat tolerance; however, this research further examines the impact of the mutations on molecular, genetic and physiological parameters. One aspect of this project involves employing sophisticated monitoring techniques to detect molecular differences emanating from the liver to identify key molecules for controlling metabolism prior to the onset of heat stress. This information could result in development of more effective feed additives to ease seasonal heat stress caused by climate change in temperate zones.

Additionally, scientists at Acceligen and Semex are using gene editing to introduce the mutations into both elite beef and dairy cattle to study an animal’s ability to adapt to extreme heat and humidity. After the edits are introduced, the productivity and well-being of the precision-bred cattle will be compared to those that do not carry any PRLR edits. By introducing these naturally occurring gene variations into non-adapted breeds, researchers can better understand how to control heat stress and ultimately improve animal health, well-being, fertility and economic return for producers.

“Tropically adapted cattle from the Caribbean Basin have provided us a naturally occurring trait that we can leverage to reduce the carbon footprint of cattle globally,” said Tad Sonstegard, the principal investigator of this research. “We believe this is an exceptional opportunity to contribute innovative solutions to food security challenges related to animal protein.”

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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.

Connect: @FoundationFAR | @RockTalking

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