It’s plumb tough to hit something specific without aiming, as the old saying goes. It’s equally easy to hit something unintended by using the same strategy.
Consider selective breeding, or non-selective breeding for that matter. It always represents a roll of the genetic dice. There’s no telling which genes the offspring will inherit from each parent. There’s no way of knowing how the environment will allow the inherited genes to express themselves, exactly.
There are ways to stack the odds, of course. For instance, it seems a fool’s errand to select the next bulls without considering their EPDs, considering the increasing accuracy of genetic evaluation. The inclusion of genomic information adds accuracy, especially for young sires.
Now, new methodology called single-step promises more predictability in real time for both single-breed and multi-breed evaluations. For that matter, commercial cow-calf producers can employ a growing number of tools to get the same kind of evaluation for their own cattle.
Reproductive technology offers another deck-stacking tool. At the most basic level, producers can use fixed-time artificial insemination to breed cows to specific genetics, in a brief window of time. Advanced reproductive technology like in vitro fertilization means being able to accelerate the generation interval at rates never dreamed possible.
Now, the evolution of gene editing promises to carry all of this a stratosphere further.
Gene editing itself is nothing new. In its purist form, nature has utilized it from the beginning, via mutagenesis, as organisms seek to adapt and thrive. Plant breeders began introducing mutagenesis intentionally decades ago. But being able to direct the cellular breakage and repair processes involved only became practical in the last few years.
Gene editing is not to be confused with genetic engineering. The difference is much more than semantics.
By definition, gene editing refers to harnessing natural cellular breakage and repair processes, resulting in a DNA sequence that could occur in nature’s own time. For that matter, it probably has happened, but not necessarily in a genetic package deemed worthy of propagation.
Gene engineering, on the other hand, has to do with introducing DNA from other populations and species, something that could not otherwise be present in the host animal.
Already, a company called Acceligen is working to commercialize cattle products that include, among other things, creating polled cattle in naturally horned populations and introducing double-muscling by shutting off a single gene.
Depending on your leanings, gene editing is a transformative technology. Just as smartphones provided a new way for existing technologies and applications to be used, gene editing is made possible by technologies that preceded it, but enables their use in previously unimaginable ways.
A few years down the road, gene editing might be deemed more transitional than transformative. For now, though, it appears to have the potential to be a game-changer.
As it is, commercialization of gene editing products for cattle is a work in progress.
At the same time, the debate and regulation of such tools is at early stages.
So, if you could build the perfect cow for your environment and resources, what would she be? Not the breed components, but in terms of her ability. What traits would she unfailingly possess? What would her offspring be capable of and what sort of mating would that require?
Arguably, establishing specific breeding goals is becoming more essential, not because of narrowing economic returns or because you leave potential on the table. It’s because selection and reproductive technology are at a stage where it’s easy to take the wrong direction fast.