Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline: Human drug developers are household names, but what about animal biotechnology – where does that fit in? We know it’s a science discipline, but the commercial side is often overlooked as we focus on breakthroughs affecting humans. The truth is, animal biotechnology is incredibly important for our planet and for our people, as the world’s population continues to grow and potential space for farming decreases.

There are two main fields of study:

1) Agricultural: How to genetically modify animals for better, safer farming; and

2) Veterinary: How to develop tools that will help vets improve pet care.

In this two-part series we take a look at both, spotlighting the ethical debates, the challenges and the science frontiers.

Part 1: The Science of Animal Farming

On the agricultural side of animal biotech, scientists are churning out new ways to make cows produce more milk, how to make livestock meatier, and new food solutions to cater for the many hungry mouths around the world. Scientists have even learned how to grow meat in a petri dish using the cultured muscle cells of living cows.

The downside is that these innovations often require transgenic techniques to which the public has raised some concerns. Because transgenic means the transfer of DNA from one species to another to create a new genetically unique organism, this process can sound a little too science-fiction for most people’s dinner table. This is where the debate of how “natural” transgenic animals are comes into play.

While revolutionary scientific advances have always been met with resistance, some of these concerns are understandable. The first is for human safety. How will genetically modified animals affect public health in the short term, and for future generations?

For instance, scientists have found a way to make melons grow in colder climates by transgenically adding fish genes to the melons. However, for cultural reasons, or as a result of special dietary requirements, a segment of the population cannot eat fish. Could they eat these transgenic melons?

It depends on how you define DNA. If you define it as a universal code consistent for all living things, then crossing it doesn’t make the melon fishy; it just makes it a different kind of melon. But if you define it as the individual recipe that makes each of us unique, then that melon now contains some fish and should not be consumed by these cultures. If even some people believe the latter, is it ethical to widely spread this practice in order to keep producing out-of-season melons, thereby cutting off an available food source for these people?

Many of the frontiers are polarizing, from genetic modification to artificially grown beef. While testers report it tastes “close to meat,” would you eat a burger grown in a lab? The ability to produce meat in a lab would revolutionize the way we feed ourselves and would allow us to better sustain our growing population, but the public’s not sold.

A Scientific Debate

Whatever the issue, it’s important to frame the debate with facts and understanding. Half-truths and misunderstandings are a constant threat to progressive research and have the potential to ruin the reputation of a whole field.

Animal biotech scientists do so much more than simply attempt to improve our food supply. Among the amazing advances, scientists are currently developing technologies to knock out genetic markers in pigs. This creates a more immune-compatible organ donor species for humans and can further our understanding of human and animal diseases.

If done properly, with the right regulations and ethical guidance, animal biotechnology can improve the wellbeing of animals and maximize the food value we get from them. Public opinion will no doubt change dramatically over the next few years, depending on what stories and messaging prevails. However it evolves, the world’s current environmental trajectory is dangerous. Science must do everything it can to responsibly research and present data showing the safety and benefits of animal biotech. As science communicators, we must ensure the right information is heard, so that a rational debate can take place.

Tune in next week for part 2 of our series – veterinary research.