Virus Resistant Pigs

Date: 26/07/19

Virus Resistant Pigs

Viral infections in pigs are highly destructive and extremely costly for the framing industry. An outbreak of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), commonly known as blue ear, killed over 400,000 pigs in a single year in China, with more than two million additional animals infected. In the US and Europe, the disease is estimated to cost farmers around $2.5bn (£2bn) every year in lost revenue. 
Unlike bacterial infections, viruses are notoriously hard to protect against and difficult to treat. Even with the very highest standards of pig hygiene, PRRS, and other viruses, such as Transmissible Gastroenteritis Virus (TGEV) can still be devastating to pig health and farm incomes. However, one team of researchers appears to have come up with a highly effective answer in gene editing.

How does gene editing work?

Gene editing involves identifying the enzymes that are required for infection to occur, and ‘switching off’ the genes that are responsible for their production. In the case of TGEV, the enzyme ANPEP is required as a receptor for the virus. A team from the University of Missouri, Kansas State University and the genetic research company, Genus, found a way of editing the gene that triggers ANPEP production, and were able to breed pigs without this enzyme, who were resistant to the TGEV virus as a consequence. These changes had no other impact on pig health or their natural development. Similar results were achieved by editing the gene responsible for the enzyme receptors needed for the PRRS infection.

Is gene editing the same as GMO?

With genetic modification still treated with suspicion by both breeders and consumers, it is important to note that gene editing is a significantly process. Where the creation of GMO crops and animals often involves the introduction of DNA or genes from other species, giving rise to concerns about so-called ‘Frankenstein genes’, genetic editing only involves the manipulation of the existing genes, by deleting them, removing them or making them inactive. Scientists are not ‘playing God’ by mixing character traits from different species.

Gene editing also has other advantages. Not only does it enhance pig health by reducing the incidence of viral infections within the herd, it also reduces the risk of bacterial infections that can attack the weakened immune systems of infected animals. This cuts down on the need for anti-biotic treatments, which in turn reduces the risk of these organisms developing antibiotic resistance.

Are genetically edited pigs the future?

The science is still in its early stages, so we won’t be seeing virus resistant pigs on our farms just yet. A lengthy approval processes is currently being undertaken in both China and the USA, although Genus’s Chief operating officer, Bill Christianson describes their discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration as ‘very positive’. Of course, persuading the regulators is only half the battle, and persuading a public that is strongly against GMOs may be much more difficult. Yet with viral infections causing so much suffering to the animals and such hardship for farmers, it is clear that something has to be done. 

Until then, Kilco will continue to support the UK and Ireland pork industry with state-of-the-art biosecurity products and protocols that enhance pig hygiene, minimise infections and maximise pig health. 

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