Scientists at AgResearch in New Zealand have successfully produced healthy transgenic cows that make modified milk or human therapeutic proteins in their milk.
What is a transgenic cow?
Transgenic cows are genetically modified (GM) cows. They have an extra gene or genes inserted into their DNA. The extra gene may come from the same species or from a different species.
Transgenic cows produce proteins in their milk
The extra gene (transgene) is present in every cell in the transgenic cow. However, it’s only expressed in mammary tissue. This means that the transgene’s protein will only be found in the cow’s milk and can only be extracted from there.
Since 2000, scientists at AgResearch have been successfully producing transgenic cows that make modified milk or produce therapeutic proteins to treat human diseases.
Find out more about Transgenic cows making modified milk and Transgenic cows making therapeutic proteins.
Techniques used to make transgenic cows
Making a transgenic cow is a multi-step process.
First, the gene for the desired product is identified and sequenced. Then a gene construct containing this desired gene is created using DNA cloning, restriction enzyme digests and ligation.
The gene construct is then introduced into female bovine (cow) cells by transfection. Transgenic bovine cells are selected and fused with bovine oocytes that have had all of their chromosomes removed. Once fused with the oocyte, the transgenic cell’s chromosomes are reprogrammed to direct development into an embryo, which can be implanted into a recipient cow. After a 9-month gestation period, a female calf is born. She will only express the transgene in her milk during lactation after her first calf is born. This is because expression of the transgene is controlled by a promoter specific to lactating mammary cells.
This article gives further information on the techniques used to make transgenic cows.
Transgenic cows on the farm
Transgenic herds live on special farms with their own milking sheds. They are kept separate from regular herds. Transgenic cows look identical to normal cows. Researchers use ear tags and microchips to identify transgenic cows and their calves.
One of the aims of the research programme is to show that transgenic cows pass on their transgenes to subsequent generations. If a transgenic cow is mated with a transgenic bull, she will have a higher chance of having transgenic offspring. However, if a transgenic cow is mated with a non-transgenic bull, her offspring will have a 50% chance of being transgenic, as offspring inherit half of their chromosomes from their mother and half from their father.
Regulating transgenic cow research
New Zealand has very strict regulations for working with transgenic animals. Before any research can be done, an application must be made to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Applications for transgenic research are open to the public for comment, and all applications are considered in consultation with Māori. Find out more in this article: Regulating transgenic cow research.
Future of transgenic cow research
Transgenic cows have a wide variety of potential applications in biomedicine, agriculture, animal health and environmental sustainability. See this article, Future uses of transgenic cows to find out more.
The future of transgenic cow research in New Zealand depends upon funding, regulations and public opinion. New Zealanders need to weigh up the risks and benefits associated with transgenic cows and decide what they consider to be acceptable.
Explore the ethics of generating transgenic animals.
Ethics of transgenic cows – in this unit plan, students develop their knowledge of transgenics so they can formulate an argument and make ethical decisions about using transgenic cows to make medicines to treat human diseases.
Ethical frameworks and transgenics activity – use ethical frameworks to explore some of the ethical issues raised by using transgenic cows to produce medicines to treat human diseases.
Role-play ethics and transgenics activity – in this activity, students use role playing to explore different stakeholders’ perspectives on the issue of using transgenic cows to make medicines to treat human diseases.
Ethics of modifying cows with human genes activity – in this activity, students explore different stakeholders’ perspectives on using transgenic cows to make medicines and weigh up the consequences, both benefits (pluses) and harms (minuses).
Updates to transgenic cow research
AgResearch received approval in 2010 to extend its transgenic cow research. However, changes in funding mean the crown research institute is no longer active in biomedical research projects. In its 2017 report to the EPA, AgResearch noted that it still has around 40 transgenic cows in its Waikato containment facility. Most of these cows are for casein and beta-lactoglobulin (BLG) research.