Current Work in Reproductive Biology and Biotechnology
There are currently 4 senior faculty members associated with the RSL, Drs. Duane C. Kraemer, Mark E. Westhusin, Charles R. Long, and Michael C. Golding. Together they have more than 130 years combined experience in conducting research into diverse areas of mammalian development and reproduction. Using a combination of embryology and molecular techniques, RSL trainees investigate: improved methods for assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) including in vitro fertilization, gamete cryopreservation, animal cloning, production of genetically engineered animals, strategies for biopharmaceutical production, stem cell models of mammalian birth defects, and developmental programming. Our team is comprised of a diverse group of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees and is supported by the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Agriculture, and private sponsors.
Core Areas of Research
1. Production of Genetically Engineered Livestock
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that food production will need to increase by 70% in order to feed the nine billion people expected in 2050. Moreover, the ratio of arable land to population has declined more than 50% since 1960 and is expected to continue. Livestock will continue to represent important sources of economic income from the sale of food and fiber, especially in developing countries. Nutritionally, livestock products provide critical protein and micronutrients not found in crops. With hunger already a major problem (815 million of the 7.6 billion people in the world, or 10.7% were undernourished worldwide in 2016), GE livestock with improved production traits will serve a critical role in animal agriculture. Scientists at the RSL have played a leading role in developing new, more efficient technologies for producing genetically modified livestock and have produced over 100 genetically engineered (GE) animals representing cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Thus far efforts have concentrated on producing livestock which exhibits increased muscle development (more meat), or resistance to diseases such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, mad cow disease) and/or Foot and Mouth Disease. These animals are currently being evaluated to document enhanced meat production and/or disease resistance characteristics.
Novel Strategies to Produce Agricultural Disease Resistance
Changing consumer demands and environmental policies will cause a significant shift away from the reliance on antibiotics and place a premium on genetic traits allowing for innate disease resistance. In response, researchers within the RSL are developing numerous strategies to prepare for this future, and maintain Texas A&M University and Texas AgriLife as world-leaders in animal agriculture.
Genetically Engineered Cattle Resistant to Mastitis
In addition to the GE animals described above, scientists at the RSL have also worked through the College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University and Texas Agrilife Research to establish an agreement with the USDA and produce transgenic cattle which secrete lysostaphin in their milk. To date, three transgenic calves have been produced. Previous studies involving these animals have clearly shown they are resistant to mastitis, a devastating disease that occurs throughout the world and costs the dairy industry billions of dollars each year. Herd expansion, testing and obtaining FDA approval for marketing these animals represent the next steps involved with this project.
2. Animal Biotechnology and Vaccine Production – Malaria Vaccine Production in Goats.
One of the greatest utilities derived from GE livestock is their ability to function as living bioreactors to produce vaccines and medicines in milk. In 2010, RSL scientists working with the College of Veterinary Medicine and Texas Agrilife Research entered into an agreement with rEVO, Inc. to produce transgenic goats which express malaria vaccine in their milk. To this end 3 goats were produced, 2 males and 1 female. Milk collected from the female was analyzed to confirm vaccine production. The next step for this project is to expand the herd followed by milking, protein purification and vaccine production. This vaccine has already proven effective in preventing malaria in mice, however additional research involving non-human primates and other studies demonstrating the safety and efficacy of the vaccine are needed prior to FDA approval for distribution and use. Millions of people, many which are children, suffer and/or die each year from malnutrition or diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness or even common diarrhea. The culprit of this problem is founded in basic economics. These countries do not have the cash and/or natural resources to pay for the food and medicines they so desperately need. The application of animal biotechnologies and genetic engineered livestock provide a means to alleviate this problem by producing food and medicines at a price point poor countries can afford. For example, it has been estimated that a single GE goat could produce enough antigen during one lactation period to produce over 8 million doses of vaccine. A small herd of goats would be capable of producing all the malaria vaccine needed in the entire world!
3. Embryo Development and Environmental Toxicology
From studies using a diverse range of model organisms we now acknowledge environmental exposures in the womb provide a plausible link to the development of both birth defects and pediatric disease. In order to make informed clinical recommendations and develop therapeutic interventions, we must determine how environmental exposures alter the developmental program and cause birth defects. For the past five years, researchers in the reproductive sciences lab have focused on examining defects arising as a consequence of prenatal alcohol exposure, using a mouse model. Through this research, they seek to ultimately determine how alcohol and nutrition influence fetal development, and train future scientists to examine advanced molecular mechanisms in the etiology of environmentally induced birth defects.
Together, hunger and disease claim countless millions of lives each year, many being children. Hunger and disease ultimately lead to other human tragedies including societal unrest, war, and destruction of the environment. Solutions to these global problems are neither simple nor obvious. However, the development and application of biotechnology, in particular, genetic engineering of plants and animals offer great promise and is recognized by many as being the “only alternative” for meeting the future global needs for food production and health care. Besides the research described above, RSL scientists are also working on the development of 1) livestock resistant to viral and bacterial disease, 2) biotherapeutics to treat equine injuries and age-associated ailments, 3) biomedical models for human disease, 4) tropically adapted livestock with enhanced production characteristics, and 5) cattle and goats that produce oral vaccines and nutritional supplements in their milk which could prevent common bacterial infections and diarrhea in humans. The Reproductive Sciences Laboratory is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the development and application of GM livestock, their introduction into society and their application in the fight against world hunger and disease. While already recognized as a world-leader, continued support and growth of the RSL will undoubtedly allow the College of Veterinary Medicine and TAMU to emerge as the premier institution in the world focused on the application of biotechnology to benefit animal and human health and welfare.