Down on the Roslin's farm? Genetically engineered pigs and chickens

Researchers at The Roslin Institute used gene-editing techniques to create pigs that could be less susceptible to African swine fever.--Courtesy of Norrie Russell, The Roslin Institute

The University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute made headlines after cloning Dolly the sheep, and now the research center is generating more buzz for its work with other animals. Roslin is genetically engineering pigs to resist African swine fever and using similar gene-editing techniques to create chickens that may be resistant to bird flu.

Researchers at Roslin edited a gene linked to African swine fever, called RELA, to make pigs more resilient to the virus. RELA causes farmed pigs' immune systems to overreact when they contract African swine fever, which often leads to illness and death.

Warthogs and bush pigs have a different version of the RELA gene that could make them less susceptible to the virus. Scientists changed 5 letters in the RELA gene in farmed pigs to mimic the gene in warthogs and bush pigs, which could potentially give farmed pigs a better chance at fighting the fever.

The effort marks the first time researchers have successfully swapped in changes to an animal's genetic code using gene editing, the team said in a statement. They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Next up, Roslin researchers plan to launch trials to see whether the genetic changes improved the pigs' resilience to African swine fever. "Our goal is to improve the welfare of farmed pigs around the world, making them healthier and more productive for farmers," Bruce Whitelaw, head of development biology at Roslin, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Roslin scientists are hard at work developing gene-editing technology for avian influenza, which continues to plague bird populations around the world. The center is creating "superchickens" that have an extra gene that prevents the transmission of bird flu, The Financial Times reports.

Companies such as Cobb-Vantress, a poultry breeding and genetics business owned by Tyson Foods, have already backed Roslin's efforts. But Cobb-Vantress is taking a measured approach to innovation.

The company announced in 2014 that it would sink almost $1 million into a three-year research initiative at Roslin, including work that would create a bird that could prevent the spread of avian influenza. But Cobb-Vantress will not pursue commercialization of the technology "at this time," the company told the FT. The company's words echo an industry-wide hesitance to jump fully on board with the projects, as critics point to ethical concerns with the technology.

- here's the statement
- read the FT story (reg. req.)