In a move signaling an exciting turn of the culinary and scientific world, Washington State University (WSU) just made history with a sausage.
I can almost hear you laughing, but mind you: this is no ordinary sausage; it’s the result of a significant breakthrough in gene-editing technology applied to livestock.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now granted authorization to have this type of food — German-style sausages to be more precise — made from gene-edited pigs available for human consumption.
This is not the first time that a gene-edited food product has been approved by the FDA. However, this is the first approved gene-edited product researched by a university (i.e. a publically funded project), as opposed to the other approved products, all of which are pushed by private companies.
“It’s important for a university to set the precedent by working with federal regulators to get these animals introduced into the food supply,” said Jon Oatley, a professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“If we don’t go through that process, all of the research we’re doing is for naught because it will never make it out into the public.”
Stepping into the future of food
Oatley and colleagues utilized the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientific equivalent of a high-precision molecular scalpel, to make specific improvements to the genetic traits of livestock.
The gene-edited pigs are developed as “surrogate sires”. In this technique, the pigs are initially gene-edited to be sterile by knocking out a gene responsible for male fertility. Then, these animals are implanted with another male’s stem cells, producing sperm that carries the second male’s desired traits.
This high-tech form of selective breeding allows broader dissemination of valuable genetic traits in livestock, paving the way for improved meat quality, greater livestock resilience in the face of environmental changes, and consequently, increased protein sources in developing nations.
It’s important to remember, however, that introducing gene-edited animals into the food chain is a complex process. Oatley’s team spent two years and approximately $200,000 obtaining the necessary approval for the five pigs they worked on. It’s a journey fraught with challenges but also crucial for the intended goal — revolutionizing the way we feed people.
One of the critical aspects of this landmark approval is the potential it holds in transforming public perceptions about gene-edited foods.
While gene-editing might sound like a concept straight out of a science fiction novel, it’s not about creating monstrous mutants. Instead, it’s a meticulous process that makes changes within an organism’s DNA very quickly—changes that could occur naturally over time or through traditional breeding practices, but which can take much too long to achieve. With university-backed research like this, the hope is that public trust in the technology will grow, dispelling fears and misconceptions.
The journey of these gene-edited pigs, from laboratory subjects to a vital part of the food chain, isn’t merely a testament to the capabilities of gene-editing technology. It’s also a poignant example of how science can address food insecurity, improve animal welfare, and cater to a growing population’s dietary needs.
A Glimpse into tomorrow’s menu
The FDA’s approval has extended to only a few gene-edited animals for human consumption so far, including heat-resistant beef cattle and pigs whose meat won’t trigger a severe allergy in people with alpha-gal syndrome.
But the clearance for these gene-edited sausages from WSU has set a milestone: It’s the first FDA-approved gene-edited meat not developed by a private company.
Will gene-edited foods become the norm, offering more nutrients, longer shelf-life, and less susceptibility to diseases? Time will tell.
In a world where skepticism often accompanies novelty, gaining public acceptance is crucial. A 2022 survey by researchers at Iowa State University found that people unlikely to try gene-edited foods were often distrustful of the companies producing them. The WSU example provides an important counterpoint to this skepticism.
As Oatley puts it, “There’s a trust that comes with university-based research.” The mission here is not profit, but ensuring valid research and the health of the animals produced. As this trust builds, the true potential of gene-editing technology can be realized, bringing us a step closer to a food-secure future.