IT became famous for the creation of the world’s first cloned mammal Dolly the Sheep. Now scientists at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute are at the forefront of a “revolution” in genetic engineering.

Researchers are working on a new technique called gene editing, which involves making precise changes to DNA to alter specific genetic traits.

The Roslin scientists are aiming to tackle diseases which can devastate farm animals, such as African swine fever in pigs.

But it has been predicted gene editing could one day be used to modify human genes to prevent incurable genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

The Roslin Institute has already paved the way in other genetic modification techniques, including creating “transgenic” animals, which have been given genes from another organism. Examples of this include “glow in the dark” pigs and chickens, where fluorescent jellyfish genes are used to make particular cells of the animal glow under UV light.

Bruce Whitelaw, professor of animal biotechnology and deputy director of Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, said gene editing was even more revolutionary than the creation of transgenic animals.

He said: “It is certainly the fastest developing biological tool I have ever encountered.”

The Roslin researchers are trying to use gene editing to make animals more resistant to diseases - including African swine fever, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRS) in pigs and foot and mouth disease in cattle.

Whitelaw said having resistant animals would boost food production and reduce the impact of disease on farmers and the animals themselves.

“If there was a regulatory process that allowed that animal to be used and if the industry and the public and the consumer wanted such animals in the food chain – both of which are big ifs – then the impact could be tremendous,” he said.

“It could have a major impact on the overall productivity, which is something which is needed at the minute because of our increasing population.”

The scientists have successfully bred pigs which carry a version of a gene usually found in warthogs and bush pigs which is believed may stop them from becoming ill from African swine fever.

Whitelaw said the concept of the technology had been proved to work, so could also be used in humans.

He said: “In all the research labs around the world there are many, many studies looking at doing the same thing in mice and rats and in all cases looking at trying to understand what a gene does or to alter its function.

“Conceptually that could be done across the whole mammalian range of species, which includes ourselves.”

A report published by independent ethics body the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in September said the potential use of gene editing could be almost unlimited, as it can be applied to all organisms from bacteria and plants to animals and human beings.

But it also warned that urgent scrutiny is required on the ethics of using it to prevent transmission of inherited genetic diseases in humans and increase production of farmed animals.

When it comes to humans, there are concerns around the implications of making irreversible changes that will be passed onto future generations or the technology being used to engineer “desirable” characteristics.

Using gene editing in farm animals could raise potential issues around food safety and the welfare of animals.

Whitelaw said it was technically possible to carry out gene editing in a human embryo.

But he added: “You would have to have the justification of why you would want to do that and you would have to have the legislative environment to do it.

“There are some diseases which we don’t have a way or a method to overcome and if we look at those diseases we might be able to come up with a justification for using the technology - but I think society is a long way from that.”

Research on transgenic animals is also still being carried out at Roslin, for example with chickens that have been given jellyfish genes.

These birds remain looking like normal birds, but have a secret research “weapon”.

The genes from the jellyfish allow scientists to examine particular cells which glow under UV lights, to better understand how the bird’s immune system works.

Adam Balic, a fellow at the Roslin Institute, said: “The aim of all this work is to produce vaccines that are more efficient and cheaper to produce and have less side effects, and also to inform breeding decisions so we can produce more healthy and robust birds.”

Balic said gene editing also has the potential to tackle diseases in chickens, but agreed far more debate was needed around how acceptable it would be to use such techniques on animals entering the food chain.

“It is important to question new technologies, but I think it is also worth considering that when these new technologies arise, great benefits could be derived from them,” he said.