Scientists are about to use the latest gene-editing technology to create New Zealand's first "climate-smart" cow.
In a new $10m study, AgResearch scientists aim to pioneer dairy cattle that boast better milk production, greater heat tolerance, and fewer emissions.
AgResearch senior scientist Bjorn Oback said dairy cows had a "mutually detrimental" relationship with climate change, in that they both contributed to it through greenhouse gases like methane, and would suffer from its impacts.
But building in the traits that would slash emissions and adapt them to a warmer world couldn't be done through conventional breeding, for the simple reason it would take too long.
That's where genomic selection and editing could speed things along.
AgResearch has already developed methods to zero in on genetic gains, from as far back as the early embryo stage, which are now starting to be used in large-scale commercial breeding.
In a five-year programme, Oback and colleagues want to expand this concept into an entirely new platform that would combine cutting-edge gene editing technology with strategies to rapidly multiply specially-chosen embryos.
They are starting by genetically introducing two known variants predicted to improve milk production and cow comfort under heat stress.
One of those variants, involving a change in the cow's prolactin receptor, was known to help with tolerance to heat and resistance against parasites.
The other would help cows adapt to hotter grazing conditions by lightening the colour of their coats.
Once this work had been completed, the team would evaluate the gene-edited cattle to check their interventions had succeeded.
Next, they planned to add more genetic variants linked to other beneficial traits, such as excreting less damaging nitrogen and producing fewer greenhouse gases.
Oback said these particular variants were either already known or were in the process of being discovered.
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"Genome editors drastically reduce costs and timelines to bring new products to market," he said.
"Given their unprecedented power of directing genetic improvement, these new biotechnology tools have already been globally adopted."
At AgResearch, Oback and colleagues had access to the largest genome datasets in the country, along with several major gene discovery platforms turning out new candidate variants.
The programme would also confront the long-standing contention surrounding gene-editing itself.
"Even though genetic modification technologies and products are safe, they are shrouded in public controversy," Oback said.
"Resolving this dichotomy requires a responsible research and innovation approach."
The research team would consider whether there would even be public support for gene-edited cows, and look at how consumers might respond.
Under current legislation, genome editing of livestock is still classified as genetic modification and heavily regulated under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act.
AgResearch had gained approval to develop and maintain genome-edited cattle, within the country's only EPA-approved large animal outdoor containment unit.
Approved for 200 cattle at full capacity, the double-fenced, 46 ha unit included animal handling, milking, surgical facilities, along with portable weather stations that were required for the tests.
Oback saw climate change as an "unprecedented challenge", and said new technologies could play their part in battling it.
"Producing fitter, healthier and more sustainable animals is vital in the face of environmental challenges, pest and disease pressures, and changing consumer preferences," he said.
"It creates optionality and long-term security for New Zealand dairying and livestock-based agriculture."
The research is being supported through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund.