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Gene Editing Makes Pigs Resistant To Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome

Dec 10, 2015 04:21 PM EST

A virus known as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), also named blue ear disease, causes reproductive failure, weight loss and high mortality rates in domestic pigs. While there is currently no vaccine, a team of researchers from the University of Missouri (MU) has bred the first pigs resistant to contracting this disease.

"Once inside the pigs, PRRS needs some help to spread; it gets that help from a protein called CD163," Randall Prather, professor of animal sciences in the university's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, explained in a news release. "We were able to breed a litter of pigs that do not produce this protein, and as a result, the virus doesn't spread. When we exposed the pigs to PRRS, they did not get sick and continued to gain weight normally."

To do this, researchers edited the gene that makes the CD163 protein so that the pigs could no longer produce it.

"We then infected these pigs and control pigs; the pigs without CD163 never got sick. This discovery could have enormous implications for pig producers and the food industry throughout the world," Kristin Whitworth, co-author on the study and a research scientist in MU's Division of Animal Sciences, added in the university's release.

In addition to preventing the pigs from getting sick, researchers found their genetic "fixes" did not alter the pigs' development in any other way. Their findings are of particular importance because PRRS costs North American farmers more than $660 million annually. Since the success of early trials, MU has signed a company known as Genus PLC.

"The demonstration of genetic resistance to the PRRS virus by gene editing is a potential game-changer for the pork industry," Jonathan Lightner, Chief Scientific Officer and Head of R&D of Genus, said in a statement. "There are several critical challenges ahead as we develop and commercialize this technology; however, the promise is clear, and Genus is committed to developing its potential. Genus is dedicated to the responsible exploration of new innovations that benefit the well-being of animals, farmers, and ultimately consumers."

Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology

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