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Erdmann speaks on gene editing on Day 2 of Bio Conference

Tom Erdmann of Acceligen gives a presentation on growing genetically matched organs for transplant during the Worthington Bio Conference on Friday at the Worthington Event Center. (Tim Middagh / Daily Globe)1 / 2
Attendees at the 13th annual Worthington Bio Conference grab lunch Friday afternoon at the Worthington Event Center. (Tim Middagh / Daily Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — It turns out that researchers are currently editing genes of Asian elephants to one day recreate woolly mammoths, in order to combat environmental challenges in Siberia.

Genome editing and DNA sequencing is getting to a point where it could actually lead to the de-extinction of rare animals. Forget science fiction — at this point, this is just science.

But before scientists create a real-life Jurassic Park, the focus is on using gene editing to better the lives of everyday people and animals.

Tom Erdmann, general manager of Acceligen — a subsidiary of Minnesota-based biotech company Recombinetics — wants to use gene editing on farm animals to solve the world’s problems, including food shortages, animal welfare and even organ transplants. He was the final speaker at the Worthington Bio Conference on Friday.

By going into an animal’s genes and editing them, Acceligen can change their traits to make desired changes.

“Think about editing DNA as simple as a cut and paste, or you take one Lego block, put it in a different place, you have a different outcome — that’s where we are today,” Erdmann said.

Gene editing means cows can be bred to be born without horns, grow extra muscle or be more tolerant to high temperatures. It could mean more cows are born than bulls, or vice versa.

The process can't make pigs fly, but it can make them resistant to common diseases and viruses. Same goes for chickens, and every other farm animal.

For producers and animals, Erdmann said the process is a win-win. It’s also a win for the planet, as more productive, disease-free animals means producers don’t have to raise as many for the same result.

Erdmann even said a similar process could be used to save human lives. For instance, the company could edit the genes of pigs to grow human organs. For so many people in need of organs who are still on waiting lists by the time it’s too late, the process could be a literal lifesaver.

“This is made-to-order organs in advance,” Erdmann said.

The science is there — that’s the easy part. Getting the world to accept it is a different story. Simply uttering the words “gene editing” makes people uncomfortable, even if they don’t know what it means.

Erdmann used Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as an example of a process that has provided a surplus of safe food for consumers, but has been opposed by many groups, leading to bans in more than 35 countries.

“I think GMOs are great — I think they have huge opportunities, but they have their limits, and unfortunately, they also have huge detractors and people who don’t understand them,” Erdmann said.

Erdmann made the point that gene editing is a completely different and unrelated process to genetic modification. Rather, it’s a continuation of precision breeding that has been going on for thousands of years. Gene editing only edits the animal’s natural genes — it doesn’t take genes from other organisms like with GMOs.

“You can get in a single or two or three generations, changes that would normally take tens, hundreds of years through natural selection,” he said. “So we don’t do anything with gene editing that can’t be done with natural selection.”

In trying to get the word out, Erdmann urged conference attendees to tell those interested in gene editing how the process could directly help them, rather than explain how the process works or go into specifics … so bringing up the potential resurrection of woolly mammoths might not be the best example.