The future of genetic tech: animal innovation from lab to farm

Home Office regulation ensures the safety and welfare of gene-edited animals used in research, but brave policy making is required to help such innovations move into wider use in agriculture, writes Dr Simon Lillico of the Roslin Institute

September 8th 2021

As the UK Government consults on the regulation of genetic technologies, The Biologist has commissioned a group of new articles exploring the issue and how regulatory reform in this area could help address issues such as food security, inequality, sustainability and welfare in agricultural, animal and microbiological science. Click here to find the full collection. 


The recent Defra consultation on genetic technologies sought opinions on the current regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and whether agricultural organisms produced by gene editing (GE) should fall within the same framework. Academic research in the UK that involves higher animals (including livestock) is not regulated by Defra, but by the Home Office under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and as such, any changes to the agricultural status quo involving new genetic technologies may not have a major impact on UK research involving animals. It has, however, prompted me to consider the role regulation has in my own work.

In the UK all research involving higher animals is guided by the 3Rs principle. This requires us to replace animals with alternatives wherever possible, to design our experiments to reduce the number of animals used, and to refine experimental methodologies such that animal welfare is improved and any suffering experienced by the animals is minimised. These principles provide a framework that enables delivery of the best quality science in the most humane manner.

To ensure compliance with 3Rs there is layered oversight by the Home Office, an institutional Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body, a Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer, a Named Vet, a project license holder and often numerous personal license holders to list but a few. Each has responsibilities in the process of moving from concept to data, meaning that progress can sometimes feel onerous. However, the benefits associated with such varied wisdom cannot be overstated, and the resultant scientific outputs are invariably improved as a result.

Despite these regulatory frameworks that ensure best practice, research involving living animals remains an emotive issue. While some scientific advances are clearly possible through innovative in silico approaches or detailed characterisation of biological systems in vitro, there are some questions that can only be answered by studying the complex interplay of cells and organs in vivo. Genetic technologies form a cornerstone of this research, allowing researchers to alter the DNA of individual cells or whole animals and thereby manipulate their form and function.

The advent of genome editors has provided scientists with a new toolset that allows in situ DNA manipulation with unprecedented accuracy and efficiency. The range of biological questions that can be posed is extremely diverse, ranging from better understanding of immune function to translational biomedical models, and from interrogating the function of specific genes to the production of disease-resistant livestock. Projects are assessed on their individual merits, and only if there is a clear weighting of benefits to society vs harms to the animals used in the study is a license for the work approved.

As scientists we all want our work to have meaning, but only for a few does this realistically translate directly into real-world applications. My own research includes editing livestock genomes with the view to making more resilient animals for agriculture, and in one such example we have edited an endogenous pig gene such that the encoded protein can no longer act as a receptor for an endemic pig virus.

We have shown that the edited pigs are resistant to infection by the virus. To move from the lab to the farm requires brave decision making on the part of policy makers. I do not pretend that genome editing provides a panacea for UK farmers, but given an appropriate regulatory framework, it most certainly has the potential to make a useful contribution.

Dr Simon Lillico is a Research Fellow at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.