“Scientists genetically engineer female ‘Frankenstein’ goats in male bodies to create ‘human’ breast milk” exclaimed the Daily Mail on Tuesday.
What follows on the Daily Mail and in blogs all over the net is extremely shoddy science reporting. Here’s a taste.
“Genetic engineers are deliberately breeding transgender goats to see if their milk is similar to that produced by humans.
“The goats being created are effectively a female trapped in a male’s body, complete with the full male anatomy.
“The company behind them wants to see if their milk contains the same proteins as human breast milk – with a view to one day possibly selling it in stores.”
And I’m not just picking on Daily Mail. Lots of blogs picked up the story.
Here’s my understanding of the situation.
First this “girl goat trapped in a boy goats body” business. Honestly, how can anyone know if a goat feels like a girl or a boy? Transgender is about self-identity. No, these goats are intersex.
Specifically, they have XX chromosomes and sterile male bodies. It’s quite common in goats. At the bottom of the article, they finally quote Dr Jimmy Suttie from AgResearch, who says “It was inadvertent. This is something which normally happens about 10 to 15 per cent of the time in this breed of goat. It just happens to be the cell line that was used.” For the 15 goats in the study, 75% were intersex.
So they aren’t “deliberately breeding transgender goats.” It was inadvertent.
The Daily Mail also says “All the ‘males’ have been sterilised to stop them breeding.” But the goats are sterile anyway because they lack a Y chromosome.
Being intersex isn’t weird or wrong, and I don’t like that the article takes a “oh noes! girlboys!” angle. Whatever! Humans can also be XX and male, or XY and female, sometimes without realising it until they are tested for fertility. Life goes on as normal.
These goats aren’t transgender. They’re just goats. End rant.
So what about the genetic engineering?
A human protein has been inserted into their genome so it will be expressed in milk, a concept called biopharming and an area AgResearch is interested in. Human proteins can be extremely useful in medicine, just take insulin as an example.
Commercial insulin to treat diabetes, was originally taken from cows and pigs after they were slaughtered for food.
Later the insulin gene was cloned into bacteria so they could make human insulin, which had fewer side effects.
More recently, the gene was cloned into safflowers to produce insulin at a reduced cost.
Proteins like insulin are long chains of amino acids, and that is exactly what a gene codes for – the order of the amino acids. But to work in the body, a protein not only needs the right order, it has to be folded to have the correct three dimensional shape to do its job. Often it also needs extra bits and pieces added to it, like a sugar chain. Sometimes it needs to be cut in certain places.
Think of it like an intricate origami with the instructions written on it. Often bacteria can’t read the instructions written on animal proteins. In that case, you need animal cells.
If the protein is made in animal cells, you then need to get it out. If you can get the protein expressed in milk, say goat milk, then you can collect it without harming the animal more than milking for food does. It’s been done before.
So the aim is to produce a human protein of medical interest in milk, so they can extract and study it. Not just sell human breast milk from goats in stores, as the Daily Mail seems to suggest.
Finally and for effect, the article threw in some outraged comments from random bloggers.
The whole thing is misleading, exaggerated and I hope it will be retracted. Plus it’s really mean about the goats, calling them unnatural and Frankensteins. Poor goaties.
There are some real concerns about biopharming, and people who are worried about it should have easy access to factual information. We can discuss the science of biopharming, the risks and benefits, how ethics approval is given, and how the goats are treated. With access to the whole story, people can draw their own conclusions rather than being spoonfed fear.
The last thing we need is a grim fairytale about Frankenstein transgender goat breast milk.