10 Oct 2014 Leave a comment
17 Sep 2014 Leave a comment
BEIRUT (AP) — At least 15 children died after receiving vaccinations in rebel-held parts of Syria, and activists said Wednesday that the death toll from two days of government airstrikes in the central city of Talbiseh climbed to nearly 50, a heavy toll even by the vicious standards of the country’s civil war.
The children, some just babies, all exhibited signs of “severe allergic shock” about an hour after they were given a second round of measles vaccinations in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, with many suffocating to death as their bodies swelled, said physician Abdullah Ajaj, who administered the vaccinations in a medical center in the town of Jarjanaz.
It was unclear what killed the children, but Ajaj said in an interview via Skype that they all exhibited the same symptoms to varying degrees. He said it was the first time he had ever seen such symptoms after vaccinations.
“There was shouting and screaming, it was hard for the parents. You get your child vaccinated and then you find your child dying, it’s very hard,” Ajaj said. There weren’t enough respirators in the clinic, making the situation even worse, he added.
Video footage uploaded to social media showed a medic examining a young girl who was squirming. Another child, in an orange tee-shirt and blue pants, appeared lifeless as a medic administered CPR. He then opened the child’s mouth to reveal a swollen, blue-tinged tongue. The footage corresponded with Associated Press reporting of the event.
Syria’s conflict, now in its fourth year, has caused the collapse of its health system in contested areas, scattering medics, destroying clinics and making medicines and equipment difficult to obtain. Nationwide vaccination efforts have been thrown into disarray, and polio re-emerged in parts of Syria last year.
The Western-backed opposition based in Turkey said it had suspended the second round of measles vaccinations, which began on Monday. The campaign was meant to target 60,000 children. In a statement, it said the vaccines used Tuesday met international standards and did not say what may have caused the deaths.
It is extremely unlikely that the vaccinations killed the children, said Beirut-based public health specialist Fouad Fouad, who said spoiled vaccinations were more or less harmless. “It cannot cause death,” he said.
Opposition representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.N. children’s agency is “waiting to receive more clarification on the facts,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma.
The United Nations says that more than 190,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria’s uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011. The revolt began with peaceful protests but escalated into an insurgency and set off a civil war after government forces waged a brutal crackdown on dissent.
In the latest violence, Syrian government airstrikes killed some 50 people in the opposition-held city of Talbiseh this week in an apparent attempt to target a rebel commander, activists said Wednesday. The dead included a mother and her five children, who were crushed under the rubble, and a rebel commander and several fighters, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, which obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground, said it counted 48 killed in two days of strikes on Monday and Tuesday in Talbiseh. Similar information was reported by a local Talbiseh activist collective. Both groups said the death toll was likely to exceed 50 as residents were still pulling bodies from the rubble.
The Syrian government has stepped up its bombardment of opposition-held areas of the country over the past week.
Videos uploaded of the aftermath in Talbiseh showed a man weeping as he clutched his lifeless baby boy, and residents praying over the shroud-wrapped bodies of the mother and her children. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to The Associated Press’ reporting of the event.
State-run media said Tuesday that the army targeted a meeting of “terrorists” in Talbiseh, the term the government uses to refer to all the rebels. The Observatory said that leading members of a rebel group were killed, without providing further details.
Syria’s government meanwhile accused Turkey of “sabotage” on Wednesday, saying Ankara had trained and armed opposition fighters and allowed them to cross into Syria. A Foreign Ministry official was quoted by state-run news agency SANA as saying that Turkey was also buying Syrian oil from fields under the control of the extremist Islamic State group.
Ankara has called on the United Nations to take action over what it called “systematic and repeated” use of chlorine gas in Syria. The SANA report fired back on Wednesday, accusing Ankara of supplying chemical weapons to the rebels.
The Western-backed Syrian opposition is based in Turkey, which has been a strong supporter of the rebels. The Syrian government and rebels have traded blame over the past few months for alleged chlorine gas attacks.
16 Sep 2014 6 Comments
Several articles are stating that the California almond crop is doing alright despite the drought. Yet a few months ago stories were rife of almond growers dozing their trees because their was no way to keep them alive on 40% of the water that they need to produce. I would truly love it if some almond growers could tell me how it is really going for them in California.
One report states that the total cost of the drought to the state was just over $800 million. Other figures place the cost at $2.2 million. California has a huge share of US produce. If you have been marveling over the increased costs at the grocery store, the drought in CA may be a large part of that cost increase.
Here’s an article on the almond crop in particular:
California grows a mind-boggling amount of the nation’s produce: 99 percent of artichokes, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, and on and on. That’s why the record-breaking drought (yes, it’s finally raining—no, it won’t help much!) can affect your grocery bill, even if you live nowhere near California. But with almonds—the state’s most lucrative agricultural export—the effect could reverberate for years.
Sure, almond milk lattes and almond butter could get more painful on your health-conscious wallet, but California’s thirsty almond trees also reveal a bigger fight over water in an increasingly thirsty state. California now grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds. The almond trade has become so lucrative that we’re growing them in the desert—and that, unsurprisingly, has come back to haunt us.
The fact is that almonds are especially ill-equipped to make it through drought. Farmers are already making the difficult decision to let fields lie fallow this year to conserve water. With crops like tomatoes and cotton, they could start planting again next season, but almond trees take years to mature before they bear nuts. Bulldozing an almond tree would be devastating for a farmer for years. And it’s already happening as the drought chokes up the area’s water supply.
Greener days for almond trees in 2007. AP Photo/Ben Margo
The forces that led to California’s almond trade are much larger than poor planning from any individual farmer, and Joaquin Palomino’s recent piece in the East Bay Express does an excellent job of chronicling them. In one particular corner of the Central Valley, called the Westlands, irrigation has transformed desert into bountiful farmland. Improved irrigation techniques have also been touted for increasing almond yields—all to go along with the world’s rising almond demand. On the face of it, this seems like a miraculous triumph of technology. But it hasn’t changed the fact it’s in the middle of desert.
“It’s really an area that should have never been farmed,” Richard Walker, a retired UC Berkeley geography professor, told the Express. And especially not farmed with almonds. Even with the more efficient irrigation techniques, almond trees still use about twice as much water as cotton and tomatoes.
An almond storehouse in California. AP Photo/Roger J. Wyan
As devastating as the current drought is in the short-term, it leads us to a crossroad. Farmers tending to mature almond trees have little incentive to switch to another crop—unless they are forced to by tree-killing drought. The future of farming in Westlands also depends on the controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would upgrade the system bringing water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for irrigation. The 34,000-page plan is currently up for public comment.
One idea is that to stop irrigating the land and retire the Westlands from agriculture. (The dominance of almond farming in California requires other imports, including, oddly enough,honey bees from South Dakota to pollinate the trees.) Technological inventions have let us farm land that can’t naturally support those crops. We can continue to prop them up, or we can let it go. That’s going to be a hard pill to swallow for farmers—but it’s a decision that might be made for them, if the drought continues. [East Bay Express]
Top image: Dead almond crop in the Westlands from 2009. AP Photo/Russel A. Daniels
11 Sep 2014 Leave a comment
Sometimes one simply can’t wrap words around the stupidity being played out upon the global stage. Ok, maybe it isn’t actually stupidity. It is definitely conduct regardless of life. I know, maybe it’s NewSpeak. Quarantine now means fly infection everywhere. Sheesh.
In the research I have done on Ebola, it seems that the best things short of complete isolation to help prevent it are: oregano oil, general massive immune system boosters including probiotics, food grade hydrogen peroxide ingestion regimens, and hazmat suits. Prayer should be added as well. There may be lots of other things, and I strongly suggest that we all really begin to dig into how to best prevent this virus.
It has long been rumored that the Powers that Shouldn’t Be have been striving to weaponize Ebola for years. With the length of incubation and the lower than average kill rate, perhaps that goal has been achieved?
Here is the article admitting more than the four patients stated have been brought to the US via 10 flights. They say not all flights had exposed people. Incubation up to 21 days in length though, so….Can we believe it? Eegads.:
Ebola evacuations to US greater than previously known
An airplane transporting a doctor infected with the deadly Ebola in West Africa lands near Atlanta on Tuesday. …
An undisclosed number of people who’ve been exposed to the Ebola virus — not just the four patients publicly identified with diagnosed cases — have been evacuated to the U.S. by an air ambulance company contracted by the State Department.
“We moved a lot of other people who had an exposure event,” said Dent Thompson, vice president of Phoenix Air Group. “Many times these people are just fine, they just had an exposure. But you have to treat it as though the disease is present.”
How many exposed patients have been flown from West Africa to the U.S.? Thompson said medical privacy laws and his company’s contract with the State Department prevent him from revealing the figure.
“I’m not avoiding it,” Thompson told Yahoo News. “I’m just not allowed to talk about it.”
Five weeks ago, medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly became the first Ebola patient to be treated in the U.S. He and fellow missionary Nancy Writebol were nursed back to health in a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and later released. Dr. Rick Sacra and an unidentified doctor who arrived on Tuesday are currently being treated in the U.S.
An ambulance carries American missionary Nancy Writebol from the airport to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital …
The State Department confirmed the four known Ebola patient transports but couldn’t provide details on any exposure evacuations to the United States. Phoenix Air, they said, is under contract because of its expertise.
An unnamed State Department official said “every precaution is taken to move the patient safely and securely, to provide critical care en route, and to maintain strict isolation upon arrival in the United States.”
Thompson said Phoenix Air has flown 10 Ebola-related missions in the past six weeks.
“Not everything we do is [related to] a sick person,” he said, adding that the company has also flown supplies. “We do basically whatever needs to be done.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is operating an around-the-clock Ebola emergency operations center, did not immediately respond to an email seeking information about the exposure patient transports.
On Monday, President Barack Obama, who has called the outbreak a U.S. national security priority, pledged more U.S. assistance to West Africa. The White House recently requested $30 million more from Congress to help the CDC’s efforts with the crisis.
With multiple government and aid organizations trying to tackle the unprecedented epidemic, Thompson predicts his team will be flying more precautionary patients back to the U.S.
“There will be a certain number of people who, through no fault of their own, will have an exposure event, and they are immediately identified and immediately extracted,” he said.
Phoenix Air’s modified Gulfstream III jets are “literally intensive care units with wings,” Thompson said. He said even evacuees without a confirmed Ebola diagnosis are placed in an isolation chamber for the 12- to 14-hour flight from West Africa to the U.S.
“You can never, ever let your safety guards down,” he said.
The tentlike device installed on Phoenix Air’s planes when biological containment is required. (CDC/Reuters)
The Georgia-based air transport company got involved in the latest Ebola crisis when the Christian humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse recruited it to evacuate Brantly and Writebol. The State Department was involved in the logistics, but the trips were funded by Samaritan’s Purse.
Since then, Thompson said, Phoenix Air has solely been under contract with the State Department.
“It became evident that we could no longer treat any of these flights as a private or commercial flight,” said Thompson, declining to divulge the specifics of the government contract.
Brantly, Writebol and the latest patient have been treated at Emory University in Atlanta. Last week, Sacra was flown to the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Those hospitals, plus the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, Montana, have specially-equipped biocontainment units built in collaboration with the CDC. However, the CDC has said any U.S. hospital following infection control recommendations and isolating a patient in a private room is capable of safely managing an infected patient.
Thompson declined to say where patients who have just been exposed to Ebola have been flown to in the U.S.
“They all go to a hospital and they monitor them,” he said. “If they do develop it, then they treat them. And, fingers crossed, they’re going to walk out the way Brantly and Nancy Writebol walked out.”
Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).
11 Sep 2014 Leave a comment
This seems the acme of foolishness to me. I think the best thing to do is to airdrop supplies and medical equipment in and not put more people into the area. It isn’t at all that I am heartless and have no desire to help those affected, but the long incubation period and the general tenacity of this strain seems to indicate that keeping away and actually quarantine the region while maintaining communication and assistance is the best thing to do. Here’s the article about this, and how bad it is:
Ebola outbreak: call to send in military to west Africa to help curb epidemic
Military teams should be sent to west Africa immediately if there is to be any hope of controlling the Ebola epidemic, doctors on the frontline told the United Nations on Tuesday, painting a stark picture of health workers dying, patients left without care and infectious bodies lying in the streets.
The international president of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Dr Joanne Liu, told member states that although alarm bells had been ringing for six months, the response had been too little, too late and no amount of vaccinations and new drugs would be able to prevent the escalating disaster.
“Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it,” Liu said.
“In west Africa, cases and deaths continue to surge,” she said. “Riots are breaking out. Isolation centres are overwhelmed. Health workers on the frontline are becoming infected and are dying in shocking numbers.
“Others have fled in fear, leaving people without care for even the most common illnesses. Entire health systems have crumbled.”
She said Ebola treatment centres had been reduced to places where people went to die alone.
“It is impossible to keep up with the sheer number of infected people pouring into facilities. In Sierra Leone, infectious bodies are rotting in the streets,” she said. “Rather than building new Ebola care centres in Liberia, we are forced to build crematoria.”
The World Health Organisation estimated last week that 20,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone could be infected even if the outbreak is brought under control within three months. Médecins sans Frontières has doubled its staff of volunteer doctors in the region but is unable to cope.
The epidemic can be stopped, said Liu, but only if governments send in biohazard teams and equipment.
“Many of the member states represented here today have invested heavily in biological threat response,” she said at the UN. “You have a political and humanitarian responsibility to immediately utilise these capabilities in Ebola-affected countries.
“To curb the epidemic, it is imperative that states immediately deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment. I call upon you to dispatch your disaster response teams, backed by the full weight of your logistical capabilities. This should be done in close collaboration with the affected countries. Without this deployment, we will never get the epidemic under control.”
Money is no longer the main issue, according to MSF, and voluntary help is not enough. Skilled and well equipped teams are needed on the ground.
Governments should send in military and civilian experts who can increase the number of isolation centres and deploy mobile laboratories that can be used to diagnose more cases.
Military-style operations are required to establish dedicated air bridges to move personnel and equipment around west Africa and a regional network of field hospitals must be built to treat medical staff who are infected or suspected of being infected. About a tenth of the deaths have been among health workers.
“We must also address the collapse of state infrastructure,” Liu said. “The health system in Liberia has collapsed. Pregnant women experiencing complications have nowhere to turn.
“Malaria and diarrhoea, easily preventable and treatable diseases, are killing people. Hospitals need to be reopened and newly created.”
Lastly, she said, there must be a change of approach by affected countries. “Coercive measures, such as laws criminalising the failure to report suspected cases, and forced quarantines, are driving people underground.
“This is leading to the concealment of cases, and is pushing the sick away from health systems. These measures have only served to breed fear and unrest, rather than contain the virus.”
Liu was speaking as nurses in Liberia went on strike for better pay and equipment to protect themselves from Ebola.
John Tugbeh, spokesman for the strikers at John F Kennedy hospital in Monrovia, said the nurses would not return to work until they are supplied with “personal protective equipment (PPEs)”, the clothing that guards against infectious diseases.
“From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak we have not had any protective equipment to work with. As a result, so many doctors got infected by the virus. We have to stay home until we get the PPEs,” he said.
The surgical section at John F Kennedy hospital is the only trauma referral centre in Liberia. The hospital closed temporarily in July owing to the infections and deaths of an unspecified number of health workers who had been treating Ebola patients.
“We need proper equipment to work with [and] we need better pay because we are going to risk our lives,” Tugbeh said.
The UN has also warned of serious food shortages as a result of restrictions on movement in the Ebola-hit countries. “Access to food has become a pressing concern for many people in the three affected countries and their neighbours,” said Bukar Tijani, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation regional representative for Africa.
“With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come.”
A UK Government spokesman said: “Britain is working with agencies like the World Health Organisation and Médecins Sans Frontières to prevent the spread of this deadly disease. A wide range of further options are under discussion to contain this outbreak.”
Dr Paul Cosford, director of health protection at Public Health England, said: “We will continue to offer every support to the international efforts to contain and manage the Ebola outbreak led by the World Health Organisation, working closely with government colleagues, and partners including MSF and Unicef.”
• This article was amended on 3 September 2014. An earlier version said the World Health Organisation estimated last week that 20,000 people could have been infected with Ebola over three months. In fact it said 20,000 people could be infected even if the outbreak is brought under control within three months.
03 Sep 2014 2 Comments
I don’t often write about truly personal issues. It seems to me that Facebook has taken the lead on sharing everything personal with the world at large. However, over the course of the past year, I have been dealing with a major problem and thought that in the interest of saving someone else from such a nightmare, I would air my mattress troubles out for the world to see.
Our mattress is old and my husband isn’t happy with it. However, if you haven’t noticed, things are expensive! One day he called me up and asked if it would be okay for him to spend around $130 on a “hypoallergenic” memory foam topper for our bed. It so happened that it was actually okay to spend that amount on that day, so I said “Sure!”. And so began the year of lacking sleep, not being able to breathe and drama, for me.
This topper was allowed to air out for two days as recommended and we put it on and it swallowed you whole. It actually didn’t smell as many people complain about with these memory foam things, and it wasn’t too terribly hot so I thought we’d be okay.
Guess what? I was wrong. Really, seriously, dangerously wrong.
After about two weeks, I had sinuses that simply wouldn’t clear up. You know the kind. You lay down and your only option is to be a mouth breather because your head is so full of stuff that there isn’t any chance you can breathe through your nose. Due to colds and seasonal allergies, this didn’t seem like it was going to be an ongoing issue for me. Just one of those blips in time that you take as part of the normal human condition and move on without a lot of thought.
A month into having this mattress pad, after sleeping in the recliner who knows how many times, and getting on the internet looking up symptoms for COPD and why I was getting heart palpitations and bronchial closures accompanied with incredible mental fog from not being able to sleep, I finally hit on problems with memory foam toppers. Oh my goodness. It was me to a “T”. My heart was flitting about, I couldn’t breathe, I had a cough and sinus drainage into my lungs, I felt like I had mild vertigo most of the time. What was the worst news to me was that many people took longer than six months to get over the symptoms from this “hypoallergenic” memory foam nightmare.
The really weird thing is that I am now allergic to another thing. Here’s my list of allergies, MSG, polyester, mold and now memory foam.
So, after removing the thing and putting it in the spare room because it is just difficult to throw $130 dollars away, I thought I would be on the upswing fairly soon. Ha! It didn’t happen. The heart palpitations slowed down after a month without the foam on the bed, but the sinus issue was ongoing. The vertigo feeling was lessened as well. But I still laid down and couldn’t breathe.
About four months after this, with the continuing sinus issues, I noticed black mold on the ceiling in the spare room where we have a plumbing chase. “Oh flipping wonderful!” So we opened the chase and fixed the little leak and let it dry out. Thinking that things would alright since we fixed the leak, we went on about our normal business. But I still couldn’t breathe.
Then we had an amazingly wet spring. Mold counts were out of this world on the allergen charts. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep, I had no energy and felt like garbage ALL the time.
After countless more sleepless nights, while my husband slept soundly and unaffected by anything other than our crappy mattress, I actually had to use an inhaler to breathe a few times! Never had to do that before, and I was really upset about it, too.
So I bought a dehumidifier, he removed the entire plumbing chase and sprayed all remaining drywall with bleach solution to kill mold there, I researched air cleaners and got two of them to remove the mold from the air. And that actually helped!
Now, we are STILL looking for a mattress, and it’s next to impossible to find anything that doesn’t have latex or memory foam in it. For about $2,000 you can get a all cotton innerspring mattress, but there’s a delivery charge on top of that. Our current mattress is about 12 years old and it wasn’t top of the line at the time. But it doesn’t have memory foam! There are loads of mattresses out there that say they are “hypoallergenic”, but I flatly disbelieve those claims when they use latex or foam as major components in their construction.
So I found a cotton futon mattress that only had boric acid used in it because of federal regulations. I bought that, but the divets that hold it together are too deep and hit all the wrong spots. For my husband, it makes him feel like he’s been run over by a truck because it’s too hard. So we had to take that off and put the old standby back on the bed. So the quest continued…
In Europe, you can buy natural wool mattresses for around $1500. Then each year a guy needs to come out and refluff the mattress for you. And, thankfully, or unfortunately, we don’t live in Europe. Here, you can find some cotton with wool, but as I said, it’s a couple grand for those and you have exceptionally limited choices.
We looked into possibly making our own mattress, but that is a pretty daunting task as well. Not only do you have to grow most of your own food now to know you aren’t eating disgusting things that aren’t food, but now you have to make your own mattresses as well? Sheesh.
It seems to me that there may be a plot afoot to take good, healthy natural sleep out of the human equation in this country. Like “Too bad for those of you who drive cars that cost less than these mattresses!” Maybe there is room in the market place for someone inclined to make non toxic mattresses available to those who don’t have Swiss bank accounts?
What we are thinking of doing is taking the cotton futon mattress I found and removing buttons that hold the upholstery together and then buying a down topper and a wool topper for the thing. If this works, we should come in around $700 for a mattress that doesn’t kill you with “hypoallergenic” chemicals.
I’ll let you know if it works. Of course we have to get another $400 in line to try it, but that will happen in time. Meanwhile, I hope you sleep well, and whatever you do, do NOT buy a memory foam topper! I might wish that on the federal government, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone decent at all.
03 Sep 2014 3 Comments
I just found this article below this morning. After reading it all the way through, I think the greatest danger here is the patenting. What is interesting to me is that they are not talking about inserting genes from other species into the cattle DNA, but removing a segment of the natural DNA and inserting a segment from polled cattle directly into it. You can achieve this through breeding the old fashioned way, which I think will prove to be less likely to cause unforeseen problems that may not be apparent immediately. Anyway, I thought it was intriguing and wanted to make sure that more people saw it. Happy to hear your thoughts!
(link to original article: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/530416/on-the-horns-of-the-gmo-dilemma/)
On the Horns of the GMO Dilemma
Can genome-editing technology revive the idea of genetically modified livestock?
Four years ago, Scott Fahrenkrug saw an ABC News segment about the dehorning of dairy cows, a painful procedure that makes the animals safer to handle. The shaky undercover video showed a black-and-white Holstein heifer moaning and bucking as a farmhand burned off its horns with a hot iron.
Fahrenkrug, a molecular geneticist then at the University of Minnesota, thought he had a way to solve the problem. He could create cows without horns. He could save farmers money. And by eliminating the dairy industry’s most unpleasant secret, he might even score a public relations success for genetic engineering.
The technology Fahrenkrug believes could do all this is called genome editing (see “Genome Surgery” and “Genome Editing”). A fast, precise new way of altering DNA, it’s been sweeping through biotechnology labs. Researchers have used it to change the genes of mice, zebrafish, and monkeys, and it is being tested as way to treat human diseases like HIV (see “Can Gene Therapy Cure HIV?”).
With livestock, gene editing offers some extraordinary possibilities. At his startup, Recombinetics, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, Fahrenkrug thinks he can create blue-ribbon dairy bulls possessing traits not normally found in those breeds but present in other cattle, such as lack of horns or resistance to particular diseases. Such “molecular breeding,” he says, would achieve the same effects as nature might, only much faster. In short, an animal could be edited to have the very best genes its species can offer.
That could upend the global livestock industry. Companies could patent these animals just as they do genetically modified soybeans or corn. Entrepreneurs are also ready to challenge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved a GMO food animal. They say gene editing shouldn’t be regulated if it’s used to merely swap around traits within a species. “We’re talking about genes that already exist in a species we already eat,” says Fahrenkrug.
The use of the technology remains experimental and far from the food chain. But some large breeding companies are starting to invest. “There may be an opportunity for a different public acceptance dialogue and different regulations,” says Jonathan Lightner, R&D chief of the U.K. company Genus, which is the world’s largest breeder of pigs and cattle and has paid for some of Recombinetics’ laboratory research. “This isn’t a glowing fish. It’s a cow that doesn’t have to have its horns cut off.”
To date, GMO food animals have been a complete bust. After the first mice genetically engineered with viral DNA appeared in the 1970s, a parade of other modified animals followed, including sheep that grow extra wool thanks to a mouse gene, goats whose udders made spider silk, and salmon that mature twice as quickly as normal. But such transgenics—animals incorporating genes from other species—mostly never made it off experimental farms.
Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) gathered millions of signatures to stop “frankenfoods,” and the FDA has held off approving such animals as food. AquaBounty Technologies, the company that made the fast-growing transgenic salmon, has spent 18 years and $70 million trying to get the fish cleared. Two years ago, the University of Guelph, in Ontario, euthanized its herd of “enviropigs,” engineered with an E. coli gene so they pooped less phosphorus, after giving up hope of convincing regulators.
Genome editing can also be used to create transgenic animals. But cows edited to be hornless would not have DNA from a different species, just DNA from a different breed of cattle. That is what entrepreneurs hope will create a regulatory loophole. The FDA’s regulations on genetically engineered animals, issued in 2009, didn’t anticipate gene editing and, in Fahrenkrug’s opinion, may not cover it.
In response to questions from MIT Technology Review, the FDA agreed that its rules “addressed the technology at the time.” But the agency says it reserves the right to regulate gene editing, too. “We are carefully considering the appropriate regulatory approach for products made using this technology but have not reached any decisions,” said agency spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.
To make hornless dairy cows, Fahrenkrug says, he looked up the genetic sequence that naturally causes Angus cattle, a beef variety, to lack horns. Following nature’s no-horns recipe, he used a gene-editing method called TALENs in his lab to introduce it into skin cells from a horned Holstein bull. In total, he deleted 10 DNA letters and, in their place, added 212. Some of those cells were then turned into embryos through cloning and used to impregnate several cows. Fahrenkrug is expecting the first of several hornless calves to be born within a few weeks. He declined to say where they were being kept, citing the risk of sabotage by animal-rights or anti-GMO activists.
Scared to Death
Any genetic tinkering with the food supply could arouse opposition, but Fahrenkrug hopes the vision of a hornless cow could make people see things his way. Animal-rights campaigners hate GMOs. But they hate dehorning more. Farmers do it only because they have to. Douglas Keeth, an investor in Recombinetics, says his great-grandmother was gored to death by a dairy cow. “When I was a young man working on a farm, we’d dehorn cattle with mechanical means. You do 100 steers and, well, it’s a bloody mess,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to show that on TV.”
Although not all cattle have horns, most Holsteins do. According to the Holstein Association USA, all 30 of the top-rated Holstein bulls in the U.S. have horns. Semen from these champion bulls, which are prized for fathering offspring that produce titanic amounts of milk, is frozen and shipped around the globe. After more than a century of selective breeding, the average dairy cow in the U.S. produces 23,000 pounds of milk a year (compared with about 5,000 pounds for an ordinary cow).
With Holsteins smashing milk records, any effort to mix in useful new traits by mating is challenging. That’s because crossing a record milker with a lesser animal will dilute its pedigree, says Lightner, whose company shipped $177 million worth of frozen bull semen last year. It can take several generations of crosses to make a true milk champion again.
Gene editing, by contrast, is fast and precise. Last year, working with the Roslin Institute and Texas A&M University, Fahrenkrug easily created Brazilian Lenore cattle with increased muscle mass. He did that by adding to Lenore embryos a muscle-boosting mutation that occurs naturally in breeds like Belgian Blues, though it had never before been seen in rangy, heat-tolerant Lenores. The edit consists of deleting 11 DNA letters from a single gene, thereby cutting production of a muscle-regulating protein called myostatin. Lightner says such feats are why Genus has started underwriting gene-editing research. “We haven’t realized the opportunity for genetic engineering in animals to any degree,” he says. “But these new approaches that let us move traits around could be transformational.”
Fahrenkrug’s ideas have grabbed the attention of dairy farmers, too. The technology “is very cool,” says Tom Lawlor, head of R&D for the Holstein Association USA. But he says milk producers are afraid of genetic engineering. “The technology definitely looks promising and seems to work, but we would enter into it slowly as opposed to rapidly for fear the consumer would get the wrong idea,” he says. “We get scared to death, because our product is milk, and it’s wholesome.”
Conventional breeding has also become far more precise thanks to DNA tests. By July of this year, an international collaboration calling itself the “1,000 Bull Genomes Project” had decoded the DNA of 234 dairy bulls, including Swiss Fleckviehs, Holsteins, and Jerseys. Breeders can now accurately size up an animal’s genes at birth. One result is that a few hornless bulls are already approaching top-ranked status. That leaves Lawlor unsure if there’s much of a need for gene editing.
In January, Fahrenkrug filed a patent application laying claim to any animal whose genes are edited to remove their horns. The threat of cattle patents has alarmed some farmers already distressed by seed patents. “They could take semen from my bull, gene-edit it, patent it, and the farmer will get totally screwed,” says Roy MacGregor, who breeds hornless cattle in Peterborough, Ontario. “They should not be allowed to.”
Anti-GMO campaigners also won’t have to look far for reasons to criticize gene editing. There are easy targets, like a strategy Fahrenkrug conceived to prevent cattle from reaching sexual maturity. That may make it quicker to fatten them for slaughter. It would also allow gene-editing companies to keep selling animals without the risk of “uncontrolled breeding of the animals by the buyers,” asanother of Recombinetics’ patent applications puts it.
It’s possible, even probable, that cautious regulators, activists, and commercial challenges will keep products from gene-edited animals off supermarket shelves for years. Maybe forever. But what’s not slowing down is the advance of gene-editing technology. “People will say to me, ‘You realize this changes everything, don’t you?’ Because it does,” says Fahrenkrug. “The genome is information. And this is information technology. We have gone from being able to read the genome to being able to write it.”