Washington State University researchers adapt livestock and crops to feed a more crowded, warming planet
Each bite of pork at a Washington State University barbecue was history-making.
The grilled sausage entrée was made with pigs from researcher Jon Oatley’s lab, and it represented the first time a university received US Food and Drug Administration authorization for gene-edited meat to be consumed by people.
“We’ve set an example of how to get an animal created with biotechnology evaluated for safety, processed, and put into the food chain,” says Oatley, professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences. “This had not been achieved in the US before.”
The WSU breakthrough could lead to future improvements in livestock genetics, helping feed a global population projected to hit 10 billion by the 2050s, when a hotter planet will make food production more challenging.
Unlike gene modification, gene-editing produces changes that could occur naturally in organisms or through selective breeding.
Although FDA approval was limited to five gene-edited pigs, producing about 900 pounds of sausages, it creates opportunities for WSU to talk to the public about gene-editing in food animals, Oatley says.
People have tinkered with livestock genetics for centuries, breeding animals to produce desired traits. The gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 speeds up the process. Discovered by American and French scientists in 2012, CRISPR allows researchers to make changes to an organism’s DNA through alterations to its genetic code.
Gene-editing is sometimes confused with controversial gene modification, but that technology is quite different, Oatley says.
“Gene modification is putting foreign DNA into the genome—like GMO salmon or Roundup-resistant corn,” he says. “Gene modification produces traits that couldn’t occur naturally in the species. Both the intent and the science are different from gene-editing.”
In his work, Oatley uses gene-editing to create “surrogate sires.” The technology—now patented by WSU—creates sterile males by inactivating a gene in embryos called NANOS2 that is specific to male fertility. The sterile males are then implanted with sperm-producing stem cells from a male with desirable traits.
“These sterile males start making sperm with the donor DNA,” Oatley says. “They reproduce naturally, passing on the desired genetic traits.”
About eight years of research went into the surrogate sires’ technology. Oatley and his team started with lab mice before creating surrogate sires in pigs, goats, and cattle. The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute—internationally known for its work in animal genetics—was an early collaborator on the research and is a co-inventor on the patent.
Human health and animal welfare are two of the primary ethical considerations in gene-editing in livestock, according to Samantha Noll, an associate professor of bioethics who consulted on the project. Neither was a concern here, she says.
“Meat from surrogate sires is equivalent to any other pork product on the market in terms of human health impacts,” she says. And “the targeted gene-editing done in Jon’s lab doesn’t pose animal welfare concerns.”
WSU strives for transparency with the public. “Jon has invited various stakeholders into his lab to meet the pigs,” Noll says. “We’ve had meetings with officials, shared information with the public, and met with high school biology students to discuss gene-editing and CRISPR applications.”
“I think universities play a special role in this type of research,” Oatley says. “We’re trusted by the public to do this work for the good of the human race and the animals’ welfare.”
For livestock producers, the surrogate sires technology could be a game changer for improving herds.
Dairy cows, for example, are typically bred through artificial insemination to pass on desired traits. But cattle sperm must be frozen in liquid nitrogen at temperatures of -320˚ Fahrenheit to remain viable. “In middle- or low-income countries, there’s no way to guarantee the cold chain,” Oatley says. “It could thaw on the loading dock.”
In addition, artificial insemination isn’t practical for other livestock. Swine sperm doesn’t remain viable when frozen, and in sheep and goats—important for small farmers in developing countries—artificial insemination requires surgery.
“With surrogate sires, you can produce a lot of animals with the desired DNA and use them in natural reproduction,” Oatley says. “That creates widespread access to desirable traits, lifting geographic restrictions for producers, including small farmers in rural areas.”
Oatley’s interest in food and livestock production dates to his childhood. He spent part of his growing up years in Thailand, where his dad set up a factory for computer components. After his family returned to the United States, Oatley worked on a cattle ranch in Nevada as a teenager and even spent six months as a range boss after finishing his undergraduate degree.
“Having lived and traveled around Southeast Asia, I saw poverty and the lack of access to safe, nutritious food,” Oatley says. “I wanted to do something with animal agriculture, working on food production and food security issues. That drove me into applied science in livestock production.”
Feeding 10 billion people by 2050 will require a 60 percent increase in food production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“We can’t simply put more plants in the ground and more animals in the pasture because we don’t have enough arable land to do that,” Oatley says. “We have to make each individual animal more efficient at converting feed and water into outputs for human consumption.”
That’s where biotechnology comes in, he says. “The one inherent thing in the animals we can influence is their genome.”
A scientist in cowboy boots, Oatley is notable for his down-to-earth nature as well as his achievements, says Bruce Whitelaw, the Roslin Institute’s director.
He and Oatley shared an industry backer for genetic research in pigs at one time, and Whitelaw and his colleagues traveled to Pullman to discuss possible areas of collaboration.
“Jon has this characteristic of being relaxed, laid-back, someone who takes pleasure in driving trucks to move animals,” he says. “At the same time, he’s an incredibly forceful, knowledgeable academic.”
Whitelaw had several target genes in mind for potential research cooperation. “It quickly became clear that for Jon, there was only one target, NANOS2 (the male fertility gene).”
After Oatley’s initial work with gene-editing in mice, the surrogate sires technology successfully transferred to other species. According to Whitelaw, that’s the research world’s equivalent of hitting a home run early in the game.
“While Jon can tell you about the challenges involved, it’s been successful from the start,” he says. “So far, the technology has worked in all of the large animal species it has been directed at.”
The technology’s potential is generating “quite a bit of interest” at the International Livestock Research Institute, says Appolinaire Djikeng, director general of the institute in Kenya.
The institute supports small-scale producers in more than a dozen African and Asian countries by spreading scientific research and innovation through partnerships with local universities and other stakeholders. “We see it as a medium- to long-term innovation,” he says of the surrogate sires technology.
Raising animals is a path out of poverty and malnutrition for families. But in many African countries, cattle are susceptible to trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by tsetse flies.
“While it’s often fatal to cattle, some breeds have better survival rates,” Djikeng says. “There’s natural variation that can tolerate that particular pathogen.”
In the future, the surrogate sires technology could help farmers access animals with genetic resistance to trypanosomiasis or other diseases, he says. Breeding livestock to withstand hotter temperatures is another area of interest.
“The temperature, at the very best, will stay where it is. If not, it will increase,” Djikeng says. “The need for animals better adapted to heat stress is real.”
That’s true in the United States as well, Noll says. “Think about places like Texas, where ranching is an important part of the culture and rural economy. The state experienced record heat last summer. Animal welfare is going to be incredibly impacted by these increasing temperatures.”
That puts the livestock industry in a difficult position, she says.
“You can begin to phase out livestock production from areas where the climate is not conducive,” Noll says. “Or you can utilize breeds that are better adapted to heat stress.”
In the United States, the surrogate sires technology still faces regulatory hurdles. Each batch of gene-edited animals must receive FDA authorization before the animals can enter the food chain.
The process is too costly and time-intensive for widespread adoption, says Oatley, who has testified before Congress on the issue.
WSU is among five US public research universities advocating for a change in the federal agency regulating biotechnologies that enhance traits in food animals. The US Department of Agriculture is a better fit than the FDA, they wrote in a letter to the federal government.
The FDA’s lengthy approval process was designed for drug development, not commercialization of animal-based products, the letter said.
Gene-edited meat has wider acceptance in other parts of the world. Both the United Kingdom and the European Union are discussing the use of biotechnologies in food animals, Whitelaw says, and some countries already authorize it.
Oatley, meanwhile, has received a USDA grant to refine the surrogate sires technology in cattle. He’s hoping to host a gene-edited beef barbecue in the future, subject to regulatory approval.
“The next step,” he says, “is getting this technology out of the lab and into the public domain.”
How do you like your french fries? The pale golden brown of fast-food fries, or the darker rustic fries more common at brewpubs? …
Climate change could leave its mark on one of America’s favorite side dishes, influencing both the fries’ color and taste, according to Washington State University researchers. With hotter soil temperatures, growers risk having potatoes come out of the ground with higher core temperatures, which speeds up the conversion of starches to sugars.
“When glucose levels rise, it results in a darker french fry,” says Jacob Blauer, assistant professor and potato physiologist in the College of Agricultural, Health, and Natural Resource Sciences. The flavor changes as well; fries with higher sugar content caramelize during cooking and absorb more fat.
“Some markets prefer the darker fries,” Blauer says. “But burger chains and quick-serve restaurants have typically preferred lighter fries, and they want to be able to control fry color with a lot of precision.”
Fry color is a revenue issue for Washington potato growers—and an area of research for WSU scientists working to help growers adapt their high-value crop to a warming climate. At the university’s Othello research farm, potatoes varieties are grown and tested for their ability to handle heat, including impact on storability and french fry quality.
Washington’s volcanic soils, abundant irrigation, sunny days, and long growing season make the state second only to Idaho in total potato production. The north Puget Sound region grows seed potatoes and spuds for the fresh market. But the bulk of the crop comes from eight counties in the Columbia Basin.
Washington produces about 10 billion pounds of potatoes annually. About 90 percent of the spuds are processed, and most end up as frozen french fries or other frozen potato products destined for US and Asian markets.
Washington is “the most productive place in the world” to grow potatoes, says Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. While Idaho’s potato harvest is larger, Washington outperforms its neighboring state in per-acre yield, producing 1 ½ times the potatoes per acre.
Climate change generally represents a mixed bag for Washington’s potato growers. Between 1895 and the present, the state’s average annual temperature has increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, resulting in hotter summers and warmer nights. But for potatoes, a “thirsty crop,” the ability to irrigate from the massive Columbia River bodes well for cultivation for decades to come, says Nick Bond, the state climatologist.
Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can actually boost growth if plants continue to get enough water and nutrients, says Mark Pavek, professor and potato specialist in the Department of Horticulture.
“We’re trying to capitalize on the earlier growing seasons by planting a little earlier and being ready when the crop comes out of the ground,” Pavek says. “We’re timing the fertilizer and watering to keep the plants growing as fast as we can.”
Growers want to ensure the potato plants form tubers before the hot weather hits. “Potatoes, like a lot of crops, don’t have a lot of biological activity after 90 degrees,” Pavek says. “If it’s too hot, their production slows down.”
Post-harvest activity is critical too. After potatoes come out of the field, the spuds are stacked up to 20 feet high in huge, air-conditioned warehouses. Potatoes are stored for two-to-four weeks, allowing any wounds or breaks in the skin to heal.
For potatoes headed for the chip and fry markets, ideal storage temperatures are 44 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit. But when potatoes come in from the field with warmer core temperatures, they take longer to cool.
“Imagine a pile of potatoes stacked 20 feet high,” Blauer says. “It can take a month to remove the extra units of heat.”
The potential for darker french fries is more than an aesthetic concern. Under high heat cooking conditions, excess glucose in potatoes interacts with free amino acids such as asparagine to form the chemical acrylamide. At high levels, acrylamide can be a human health concern and potential carcinogen.
“In any starchy material where you have a heat source—toast, coffee beans, french fries, you name it—you can get acrylamide, which contributes to the flavor of these foods,” Pavek says.
Potato growers are savvy about responding to heat during growing season and harvest, Pavek and Voigt say. Besides timing irrigation to cool the soil through evaporation, harvesting takes place at night and in the morning to lower potatoes’ core temperatures.
Pavek is also studying how cultivation techniques like the spacing of plants can help potatoes weather hot temperatures as they grow.
About 150 varieties at the Othello Research Station are under cultivation, including many that are part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Tri-State Breeding program, which focuses on new varieties for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Blauer is the lead investigator on a project to develop heat boxes to field test tuber development under different temperature scenarios. Testing is slated to start next year.
“With heat, some varieties become incredibly malformed. You’ll get knobby, misshapen potatoes that will be difficult to cut,” Blauer says. “Fortunately, we have varieties out of our program that resist the heat better and maintain a good shape.”
How sweet it is! …
Washington apples owe their color and sweetness to the Columbia Basin’s climate conditions. Warm days, chilly nights, and cool mornings put the blush on Pink Ladies, give Galas their scarlet patina, and Honeycrisps their red stripes.
Cosmic Crisp® apple (Photo Shelly Hanks)
“Consumers want sweet, well-colored fruit,” says Lee Kalcsits, associate professor at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. To meet market demand, Washington growers need sunny days that linger into the fall and temperatures that drop at night.
“Nighttime is when the fruit is developing its flavors and sweetness,” Kalcsits says. “For red apples, color development requires cool nights and mornings.”
Washington is the nation’s largest apple producer. Six out of every 10 apples consumed in the United States are grown here, according to the Washington Apple Commission, and the state’s signature fruit is exported to 60 countries. Most of the 10 to 12 billion apples harvested annually come from five orchard districts along the Columbia River and its tributaries.
To understand how climate change will affect future production, researchers are looking to the 2021 heat dome. Wenatchee hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit that June when a high-pressure ridge trapped hot air over the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures were 25 to 30 degrees warmer than average throughout the region, and some nighttime lows exceeded the average daily high.
To beat the heat, orchardists cooled the developing fruit with overhead misters. Some added shading screens to reduce the solar rays hitting the trees, or used reflective white sprays on the apples.
Part of the crop still got sunburned. Yields dropped by 15 to 20 percent as badly damaged apples fell from the trees, Kalcsits says.
By 2080, the frequency of extreme heat events is projected to increase. In addition, temperatures are forecast to rise across the seasons. “Hotter springs, hotter summers, and hotter falls. That all creates challenges associated with growing fruit,” Kalcsits says.
To help growers navigate climate change, Kalcsits and colleagues at the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences are working on a better understanding of short-term variation in weather patterns, including the probability of extreme events.
“For the most part, Washington’s apple growers are used to handling a lot of the issues that will come with climate change,” Kalcsits says. That includes sunburn, poor fruit color, and warm temperatures in early spring that increase the risk of disease and likelihood of premature blooms susceptible to later frost damage.
“What will be different with climate change,” he says, “is the frequency and the intensity of the weather events producers are dealing with.”
For amber waves of grain …
Eastern Washington’s wheat fields shimmer in the summer heat—a seemingly homogenous landscape blanketing the region.
But the uniform appearance is an illusion, and no one knows it better than Washington State University’s wheat breeders. For more than a century, successive generations of breeders have labored to create wheat varieties that thrive in Eastern Washington’s microclimates.
The waves of grain spread across a region with stark differences in rainfall, snow cover, and temperature. Annual average precipitation varies from 8 to 25 inches.
“I was in Walla Walla recently,” says Arron Carter, director of WSU’s winter wheat breeding and genetics program. “Within a 20-minute drive to the north, you go from fields with high-producing yields to areas with half the rainfall.”
Climate change is introducing new complexities to the work done by Carter and Mike Pumphrey, director of spring wheat breeding and genetics. Erratic weather is becoming more common, making growing conditions less predictable.
“Take 2020—high rainfall made it a good year for Washington wheat growers,” Pumphrey says. “Then 2021 was the worst in 50 years because of the drought and heat, and 2022 was the best for winter wheat in decades. In five-year cycles, we’re having the best and the worst.”
Most of Washington’s wheat is grown without irrigation, so climate has always been a consideration, Carter notes. “Breeding wheat for drought tolerance is a big part of what we do,” he says. “What’s changing is the climate variability we’re dealing with on a year-to-year basis.”
To illustrate the challenges, the breeders point to Lind, a town in Adams County. Farmers there grow wheat with a scant 8 inches of annual precipitation—a moisture pattern that’s been consistent since the 1950s. But in future years, Lind’s annual precipitation could fluctuate from 6 to 15 inches.
“There are all these conflicting traits you might need in a wheat variety to protect it against weather extremes,” Carter says.
Seeds bred for drought resistance might also need the adaptability to respond to rainstorms in June and July, which have occurred in recent years. Temperature is a variable, too. Some wheat varieties survive cold winters by remaining dormant. But those seeds also may need the ability to respond to May temperatures in the 80s.
The success of Washington’s wheat crop has global implications. Most of the crop is soft white wheat used in cakes, cookies, cereals, pastries, and pancakes. About 80 percent of it is exported.
Wheat is a staple food for about one-third of the world’s population. The crop’s high-stakes role in food security drives the need for high-yield varieties, despite future weather variability, Carter says.
What’s a bushel? Wheat research, facts, and history (Washington Grain Commission, PDF)
EU policymakers look to WSU gene-editing expertise (WSU Insider, October 2, 2023)