The 20th Animal Science Meeting, organised by the Royal Society of Biology, took place on in December 2023.

The meeting is organised and supported by the RSB Animal Science Group, a special interest group of the Royal Society of Biology, which brings together a broad spectrum of UK bodies that are actively involved in supporting, funding, or formulating policy on animal research. The whole-day meeting was chaired by Professor Clare Stanford FRSB, Chair of the Animal Science Group.

This year’s theme was selected in light of the new Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 – GT(PB)A 2023 – and forthcoming regulations for the use of genome editing and precision breeding in farmed animals. The theme is also aligned with the RSB science policy priorities for 2022-2027, which include a focus on enabling appropriate regulation and societal debate on the use of genetic knowledge and technologies in ethical biological innovation.

The meeting brought together a variety of sectors including: academia, industry, funding bodies, animal welfare organisations, learned societies and professional associations. Representatives from several regulatory and policy teams across the public sector also joined the event.

The meeting consisted of five talks on scientific developments in the field and associated ethical issues, followed by an afternoon session of four parallel workshops. These were facilitated by experts and sector leaders, including members and Fellows of the Royal Society of Biology.


Expert talks:

The first talk of the day was given by Dr Gareth Arnott from Queen’s University Belfast, who presented preliminary results of a systematic literature review examining the welfare implications of animal breeding and breeding technologies in commercial agriculture. The aim of this project is to analyse scientific literature published since 2011 on the topics of animal breeding, breeding technologies and welfare of farmed animals. The results will update the content and recommendations of the 2012 Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) report, ‘Opinion on the welfare implications of breeding and breeding technologies in commercial livestock agriculture’ and highlight knowledge gaps and areas where more evidence is needed. The literature review includes papers on a number of species, such as: beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, pigs, broiler chickens, laying hens, turkeys and salmon. Dr Arnott described the detailed process used to select peer-reviewed literature and additional sources, with expert additions also accepted from a range of stakeholders. Results from the literature search were classified using the PRISMA guidelines and were quality-controlled through a set of filters, including the application of appropriate research standards based on the REFLECT statement.

Dr Arnott summarised general facts and statistics of the selected studies in the dataset, including the species of animals and the general themes of the papers, such as: genetic analysis and mapping, breeding and selection, and reproductive technologies.  The dataset also includes association studies of traits that could improve welfare, for example: looking at disease resistance; prevention of congenital conditions; parasite resistance; polledness in sheep and cattle and the genetic basis for behaviour.

Dr Arnott presented an example of their research approach by looking at the breeding of turkeys as a case study. The papers included in the analysis focused mainly on productivity traits, with a smaller subset dedicated to health and welfare traits. However, the entire dataset offers a wider range of approaches. Despite the preliminary nature of this project, one of the take-home messages of the talk was the importance of taking into account animal welfare in the published literature and how future research can fill in any emerging evidence gaps, particularly given the importance of animal welfare as a social license when applying genetic technologies to farming and animal breeding. 

The next stage of the analysis is to interrogate the content of the papers. While a quantitative meta-analysis is useful in evaluating medical studies, a narrative approach will be used to examine the findings of this project, given its broad scope and range of expected animal welfare outcomes

The second talk was given by Dr Emily Clark from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh and discussed how advances in genomics, functional annotation and potential uses of genome editing are likely to be applied in future farmed animal breeding. Sustainable improvements in the efficient production of farmed animals will be needed in coming decades to provide healthy food for a rapidly growing human population. The challenge is to produce more food using fewer resources, in a sustainable way that meets societal expectations, improves animal health and welfare and mitigates the effects of rapidly changing climates.

Chief amongst the improvements required in farmed animal breeding is the more accurate use of an animal’s genotype to predict its phenotype. Advances in the analysis of genome function will provide tools and knowledge to answer the genotype-to-phenotype question. The Functional Annotation of Animal Genomes (FAANG) project is an international effort to characterise the functional elements of the genomes of farmed animals.

The first stages of FAANG focused on foundational data generation to characterise expressed and regulatory genomic regions, curation and provision of highly annotated farmed animal genomes. These were largely based on high depth approaches at the individual level. The primary challenge facing this community now is harnessing both the resources generated, and the potential of new technologies, to link genotype, phenotype and genetic merit in order to translate this research from the laboratory into industrial application in the field. For example, genome editing represents a potential major route for the application of FAANG data in farmed animal breeding, via detection and utilisation of causative variants that affect important traits, ‘introgression-by-editing’ of favourable naturally occurring alleles into a closed breeding population, and/or creation of de novo alleles with desirable effects. New digital and artificial intelligence technologies also offer the potential to monitor phenotypic variation in traits that affect  animal health or welfare, over multiple generations and at a farm level. Continued public investment, international collaboration, data infrastructure and training of new scientists are now needed to increase the potential application of genotype-to-phenotype research in animal breeding even further.

The third presentation was given by Dr Andy Greenfield FRSB from the University of Oxford who talked about the ethics of genome editing and farmed animal breeding. CRISPR/Cas genome editing has been available for just over a decade and its impact on the biological and medical sciences has been profound. Its development has meant that any genome is potentially an experimental genome and so any animal can be an experimental animal. But, whilst genome editing has clearly influenced research using animals, with attendant ethical concerns, it is arguably the use of genome editing in animals beyond the research arena that has captured the public imagination: for instance, gene drives to control wild populations of insects or rodents; extensive editing of the pig genome to support xenotransplantation; and the use of gene editing in agriculture and food production.

The last of these is an especially sensitive topic, whether the focus is on plants or animals. The central question of the talk was whether and how genome editing should contribute to the ethical farming of animals. Dr Greenfield surveyed some of the arguments that have been made concerning the ethical acceptability of incorporating genome editing into animal breeding for farming. He suggested that we should not be distracted by dystopian visions of the future of farming, but instead consider how ethical considerations impinge on our assessment of current breeding regimes for farmed animals, as science and technological applications evolve. Which trajectories should we adopt now? He referred extensively to the report on social and ethical issues arising from genome editing and farmed animal breeding by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2021) as an organising framework to explore certain issues, including ‘the good life’ of animals and technological exceptionalism.

The fourth talk was given by Dr Thomas Peacock, fellow and lecturer at the Pirbright Institute and Imperial College London, on the topic of genomics and genome editing for zoonotic disease resistance. As exemplified by recent avian influenza virus, African swine fever and Bluetongue outbreaks, infectious diseases of animals can cause huge economic damage and threaten global food security. Vaccines are widely used to control these diseases but, even when available, can sometimes have severe constraints or limited effectiveness. As a consequence, gene editing for disease resistance in livestock has emerged as a promising alternative technology. This approach, like vaccines, can have the added benefit of reducing zoonotic disease burden by limiting human exposure to zoonotic viruses.

In his talk, Dr Peacock explored the benefits, limitations and potential issues with current strategies for gene editing of animals to reduce zoonotic burden, with a particular focus on influenza virus. He explored the potential impact of gene editing on virus evolution and how rigorous testing of these systems in the laboratory can help us both better understand the safety of these systems, as well as shine new light on basic virus biology.

The final scientific talk was given by Dr James Turner, principal group leader & assistant research director at the Francis Crick Institute, on the topic of gene editing for single-sex litters. In mice and humans, females and males have the same autosome complement but differ with respect to their sex chromosomes: females are XX, while males are XY. In scientific research and global resources in agriculture, a single sex is often required in surplus. The ethical and financial burden of producing and culling animals of the undesired sex is considerable. In his talk, Dr Turner outlined how researchers have used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to generate single-sex litters, using the mouse as a model system. He described the challenges that remain in applying this technology to agriculture, and outlined public perceptions towards this use of the technology.


Workshop discussions:

In the afternoon, meeting participants took part in four parallel workshops led by sector leaders and members of the Royal Society of Biology on the following themes:

  1. Assessing animal welfare impacts of precision breeding
  2. Animal breeding in the genomics/genome editing era
  3. Public perceptions of genome editing in farmed animals
  4. Genome editing approaches for zoonotic resistance: opportunities and challenges

Here we summarise the main take-home messages from each roundtable, which will inform upcoming policy and communication work by the Royal Society of Biology on the use of genetic technologies in animals.

1. Assessing animal welfare impacts of precision breeding

  • The conversation about how we measure the impacts of genome editing on the welfare of animals extends beyond the animal welfare sectors. It will be affected by politics, policy, trade, food security, etc.
  • We should be assessing welfare indices that include both specific and broad measures.
  • In the phase of regulation under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, there could be a large number of indices that are considered risk factors for animal welfare and need to be measured during the experimental phase. The number of indices adapted for use at farm level might differ from those used in the research phase. They will need to be developed and agreed in a context dependent manner.
  • The 3Rs concept (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) should be applied to genome editing across farmed animal species.
  • There is also need for a harm versus benefit analysis concept in the context of genome editing in farmed animals.

2. Animal breeding in the genomics/genome editing era

  • There is need for non-specialist audiences to understand how farmed animal breeding operates today. Communication strategies should explain the context for the use of genomics and genome editing in farming. Various methodologies and processes take place in traditional versus novel breeding scenarios: a spectrum of technological interventions exists.
  • The group discussed outcomes of breeding programmes: traits, welfare outcomes and the context of the species/productions systems are all important factors to consider. However, outcomes depend on the choice of indices: what and how we decide to measure and under what conditions.
  • There is need for better transparency of breeding data and its accessibility for animal welfare researchers (and other stakeholders). Specifically, this should apply to how breeders share data that are relevant to animal welfare. The Animal Welfare Declaration in the new Act provides an opportunity to improve on the status quo.
  • Where is the main focus of regulations? We should aim to reach a level-playing field and proportionality for the animal welfare assessment, with respect to how current breeding processes are regulated. The GT(PB)A 2023 sets the stage for new regulations but we need to be targeted in the requirements. There should be hypothesis-driven testing and holistic assessment of basic welfare variables. There should be alignment between the global regulatory/breeding context and the need for data collection under the new Act.

3. Public perceptions of genome editing in farmed animals

  • Engagement should be an ongoing effort because current events can change public opinions.
  • We need to marry up stated views of citizens with the behaviour of consumers, as these can differ.
  • People are unaware of our food system in general. They are often not familiar with farming and food production methods, even when they do not involve advanced technologies or genome editing.
  • Language is fundamental: the choice of wording affects people’s responses.
  • Can policy define the acceptable purposes for the use of genome editing? Is this the responsibility of the Animal Welfare Committee under the new Act? Who does define what a benefit is? And for whom? Where is the transparent assessment of benefits in the policy process?

4. Genome editing approaches for zoonotic resistance

  • The current context of antimicrobial use and resistance (AMR) makes genome editing solutions attractive.
  • Tackling vector-borne diseases provides additional appeal for the use of genome editing approaches, but this is more of an intermediate target.
  • What is the additional risk of genome editing versus existing solutions? The timescale of how these methods help us manage disease is an important factor to consider.
  • There is no silver bullet. We need a toolbox of approaches for different situations or to use different technologies in combination (and with different timescales of application).
  • There is need for additional regulatory approval, scrutiny and policy if genome editing is used for zoonotic versus more restricted types of infections.
  • There is also need for international alignment of regulations in this area, as well as openness and sharing of research data.