"When I started doing this, I was thinking too much like a scientist, and I decided I was going to make their coat white by using the dominant white out of leghorn chickens,” said Dr. James West, Vanderbilt University associate professor of medicine and chief science officer of Climate Adaptive Genetics, in an interview with redOrbit.
“And there's nothing wrong with that; it's that, after we spent time talking to producers, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea of moving in genes from other species.”
Yeah, well, that could be a little problematic if the Black Angus coat turns into white feathers. Not that it would happen, but some people would still go “Eww! Chicken genes burger!” despite that Burger King commercial on Chicken Fries wherein a chicken breeds with a potato. Anyway, producers need to be able to sell the meat with little fuss, so out with chicken genes!
Considering that the crux of the problem is indeed black and white when it comes to cattle that can survive climate change, Dr. West went on to say this in that article:
"Now, there are white cattle. Charolais, for instance. But the problem is, most cattle that have white hair also have white skin, and white skin is actually terrible for the heat. You can't have white skin because then you get sunburned and melanoma. So what we needed was an animal with white hair and black skin.”
White hair and black skin. Easy peasy with genetic modification, right?! Not exactly.
There’s a gene for skin color and a whole process for hair or fur color to contend with, but that’s not the end of the challenge.
"There is a different reason for white hair, though,” said Dr. West. “The melanin going out into your skin is essentially a passive process, whereas there's an active transport to get the melanin into the hair. And there are genes associated with transporting the melanin into the hair. And so if you put a mutation in the gene that brings the melanin to the hair, and it's the same gene in birds that brings the melanin into the feathers, you can get black skin with white hair.”
This guy loves chicken genes, apparently. But who doesn’t love chickens?
In the end, he’s managed to keep the genetic tinkering to a single species.
"So we went looking and there is exactly one breed of cattle that I've been able to find-Silver Galloway-that is a Scottish breed about the size of a large sheep and incredibly shaggy,” said Dr. West. “They're not wonderful cattle, but I can pull the gene out of them for white hair and black skin.”
Problem solved! Well, no, not exactly. A bunch of Brazilian ranchers wanted the beasts to have cooler fur. Not cool like this…
….but cool as in short fur to further help the beasts combat the heat. So Dr. West threw genes from Senepol cattle, a West African breed that came from the Caribbean, in the mix. Voila! Short-haired, white fur, black skin, Black Angus.
From there the mix is sent off for commercial cloning.
"First of all, commercial cloning in cattle is big business. Back in 2007, the USDA approved cloning for human food consumption,” said Dr. West. “So what we're doing is taking fibroblasts out of the champion Angus line, culturing those in a dish, and we put in the gene for the white coat, black skin from the Silver Galloway. Then we mail it off for commercial cloning."
Hopefully, bringing in the clones will help the cattle adapt in time and thus ensure ample food for humans even during the worst of conditions brought about by climate change. If not, Black Angus will die in droves from the heat. That means no Angus burgers for anyone and the breed goes extinct – not exactly a good thing from the animals’ perspective. If the breed is to survive, we need to speed their adaptation to a new climate.
And that’s no laughing matter.
Beating the heat: genetically turning Black Angus into white clones