Researchers advance in genetic defense against deadly African Swine Fever
Researchers have made strong headway in defending pigs against the deadly African Swine Fever (ASF). Less than one third of pigs that catch the disease survive and it is highly contagious. The researchers have discovered that gene-editing can convert domestic pigs’ RELA gene into the warthogs’ version thereby, theoretically at least, rendering domestic pigs resistant to the disease.
No, the domestic pigs do not take on warthog characteristics. Domestic pigs and warthogs both already have the gene, just slightly different versions of it.
In its current state, the domestic pigs’ gene causes the pig’s immune system to overreact to ASF with fatal results. The researchers believe the variation in the warthogs’ gene – known as an allele -- suppresses that immune reaction. The change the researchers made to the domestic pigs’ gene is very minute and involves modifying only five letters of the genetic code.
This is the first time scientists have successfully swapped alleles in an animal’s genetic code using gene editing. Interestingly, the researchers say that this same, exact genetic switch to the warthogs’ allele in domestic pigs “could have occurred spontaneously in nature.”
This is no weird, glow-in-the-dark science experiment on pigs, in other words. It’s a logical genetic evolution that nature would likely have done over time. Unfortunately, farmers don’t have the luxury of time.
The disease shows no symptoms. Farmers just suddenly find a lot of dead pigs. That’s when they know to suspect this disease, but by then, it’s far too late to do anything for the poor pigs.
Hence a good bit of effort goes into prevention but often that proves to be too little, too late too. Check out this ASF awareness video to see the ridiculously intense measures farmers have to go to in trying to prevent their pigs being exposed to this deadly virus.
While the disease is not yet in Canada or any of the Americas, it is rapidly spreading throughout parts of Europe and most of Africa. Since it is highly contagious and spreads through pig to pig contact, tick bites, exposure to infected blood, and pigs feeding on garbage that contains pork products, many fear it will quickly spread to other nations.
“Our goal is to improve the welfare of farmed pigs around the world, making them healthier and more productive for farmers,” said Professor Bruce Whitelaw, Head of Developmental Biology at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in a statement to the press.
If you want to dig deep into the science of this advance in gene-editing, check out the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.