What do you get when you inject a mouse egg with a rabbit beta-globin gene? A mouse that produces rabbit beta-globin protein, of course. That may not sound like a particularly useful accomplishment, but Genetic Engineering Inc. of Northglenn, Colo., expects to use the gene-transferring technique to produce cows that will grow faster, produce more milk and beef, and be more resistant to disease.
In 1980, researchers at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, were the first to succeed in transferring genes from one animal species to another -- in this case, from rabbits to mice. The experiment demonstrated not only that a foreign gene can be transferred into a species, but that the mature animal will exhibit the trait controlled by the gene, and pass that trait on to its offspring.
When Charles Srebnik heard about the research, he figured the process could be used on cattle. Srebnik is a former New York investment banker, a cattle breeder by avocation, and the founder of Genetic Engineering Inc. Last fall he negotiated exclusive commercial rights to the process in exchange for royalties to Ohio University and then applied for a patent. He also persuaded the leader of the research team, Thomas E. Wagner, to take a year's leave of absence from the university in order to lead Genetic Engineering's research and development efforts in Colorado.
The company, which Srebnik started in May of 1980, has so far earned its revenues processing and selling bull semen and cow embryos. Projected sales for 1982 are around $2.5 million. But the future of the company will depend on how successfully it can modify embryos to create genetically superior cows.
To that end, Wagner is working to adapt the gene-transferring techniques demonstrated in the lab on rabbits and mice for commercial-scale use on cows. Already, he says, Genetic Engineering can maintain embryos in the lab, divide them, twin them, and freeze them. By late this year, they expect to be able to introduce bovine genes. Cattle breeders ultimately may be able to buy twinned embryos, raise one, and store the other in a freezer. If the one cow turned out to be a winner, they could thaw out and raise or sell its identical twin.
That could spell big changes for the cattle-breeding industry. "Traditional animal husbandry produces significant improvements over decades," says Wagner. "Recombinant work may produce even greater changes over a single gestation period."