Scientists in Argentina – a country whose status as a world agricultural powerhouse was built on the cultivation of genetically modified crops – have engineered a cow that they say will deliver the next best thing to mother’s milk.
The red-haired calf, paraded on television in a white neckerchief, was given human genes carrying two specific proteins, one of which is present in human breast milk but virtually absent in cow’s milk. The aim is to produce a highly nutritional, baby-friendly cow’s milk with enhanced iron and anti-bacterial properties, they said.
The team – incorporating scientists from the Institute for Biotechnology Research, the National Institute for Agricultural Biotechnology and the National University of San Martin – then cloned the cells to achieve a genetically modified embryo that was implanted in a surrogate. The calf, named Rosa-Isa, was born in April.
Germán Kaiser, a scientist involved in the project, dismissed the notion that the milk produced would be a “Frankenfood” that could be bad for babies.
“Since the proteins are identical to those in human milk, this cannot be harmful,” he said.
What is more, the idea of tailoring milk for special needs could be repeated in other uses – such as engineering cows to produce milk fortified with insulin.
Scientists in China have also incorporated human genes into cows to make more human-like milk, but the Argentine scientists added the two genes at the same time in a single site in the bovine genome – a first, Mr Kaiser said.
Julian Domínguez, Argentina’s agriculture minister, says that the development of baby milk in cows fulfils a “significant social goal”.