GMOs: Producing Infection-Resistant Cows

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  • 0:01 Genetically Modified Cows
  • 0:53 What Are GMOs?
  • 1:35 Why Genetic Modification?
  • 2:47 How Are Cows…
  • 3:29 Risks of Genetic Modeification
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Dairy cows often contract a painful and potentially fatal infection called mastitis. Now, scientists have genetically modified cows that are resistant to this infection. Learn how these cows were created and how their milk might be used in the future.

Genetically Modified Cows

Many dairy cows become sick each year with a disease called mastitis. Mastitis happens when bacteria gets inside the udders of the cow and cause an infection. This is very painful and makes the milk unfit for people to drink. To prevent cows from suffering from mastitis, scientists decided to try to modify the genes of a cow so that it could not be infected. To do that, they inserted DNA that would cause cows to produce an antibacterial protein, lysostaphin, in their milk. These genetically modified cows are very resistant to mastitis, but testing is still being done on their milk to determine if it is safe for people to drink. This small genetic modification has the potential to save the lives of many cows and save the dairy industry millions of dollars each year.

What Are GMOs?

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are used in research and to produce food crops that are disease, pest and herbicide resistant, as well as crops that have increased nutritional value. Although ill effects from consuming these products have never been reported, there is still controversy over whether they should be produced and sold. Many groups oppose the production of GMO food crops because of fears over human health and damage to the environment. Although several GMO plants have been approved for use in food, no genetically-modified animal food products are allowed to be sold in the United States today.

Why Genetic Modification?

The most common infection in dairy cattle is mastitis, which occurs when the udder and mammary glands become infected with bacteria. Mastitis is a very painful condition for the cow and severe cases can be fatal.

Even in cows that recover, there may be irreversible damage to the udders and mammary glands, and this can affect the cow's ability to continue to produce milk. It can be treated with antibiotics, but the treatment isn't always successful and the antibiotics can be passed into the milk and then consumed by people, which isn't good!

Mastitis is the most common illness among dairy cows and costs the dairy industry about two million dollars a year in the United States alone! It also contributes to a poor quality of life for the affected cattle.

One of the most common causes of mastitis is a type of bacteria called staphylococcus aureus. Scientists thought that if a cow could be created that was genetically resistant to infections with this bacteria, it would prevent many cases of mastitis. This could lead to a better quality of life for the affected dairy cows and could save the dairy industry millions of dollars.

How Are Cows Genetically Modified?

In 2005, scientists at the US Department of Agriculture bred three cows who were genetically modified to produce a naturally-occurring antibacterial protein called lysostaphin. This protein is made by other bacteria to fight off pathogenic strains of staphylococcus aureus.

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