GENE edited meat will be “on our supermarket shelves and on our dinner plates” in three to five years say scientists who have struck a deal to produce the world’s first pigs resistant to a devastating respiratory virus.

Researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh set out the plan 25 years on from their seminal cloning breakthrough with the birth of Dolly the Sheep.

Regulators in the US are expected to be the first to approve the breeding of animals altered to be resistant to the deadly Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), but the UK’s exit from the EU also opens the way to the technology being adopted here.

“We are at a tipping point in terms of regulatory reform,” said Professor Joyce Tait, founding director of Edinburgh University’s Innogen Institute which supports scientists to develop profitable and societally useful innovations.

She added that decision-makers should be guided by evidence rather than public opinion, although she believes the hostility which characterised 'frankenstein food' claims in the Dolly the Sheep era has softened.

“The benefits outweigh the risks, it won’t affect the taste, and we should go ahead as rapidly as possible,” said Prof Tait.

The Roslin Institute has signed a licensing agreement with Basingstoke-based animal genetics company, Genus PLC, which they hope will pave the way to gene-edited, disease-resistant pigs being available to pork-producing markets worldwide.

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PRRS is one of the most costly animal diseases in the world, killing hundreds of thousands of pigs globally each year, bankrupting farmers, and costing the industry in the US and Europe alone around $2.5 billion (£1.8 billion) annually.

Repeated attempts to create effective vaccines have failed, but scientists now believe that gene editing could eradicate the disease as well as making the rearing of pigs for consumption more environmentally friendly.

Gene editing uses a cutting edge biotechnology tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 to snip into and tweak the DNA of living organisms, either by removing existing genes or inserting new ones.

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The highly-precise technique is much cheaper than cloning and increasingly seen as a route to preventing inherited diseases or protecting plants and livestock from pests and pathogens.

It is distinct from genetic modification, which tends to achieve results by splicing the DNA of different species.

In North America, for example, non-browning mushrooms are already available to consumers which have had the gene for the discolouration-causing enzyme knocked out, with the aim of improving shelf life and reducing waste.

There are currently no genetically-edited meat products on the market anywhere in the world, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved AquAdvantage salmon which has been genetically engineered to grown faster.

Genus is on track to complete submissions to the FDA seeking approval for PRRS-resistant pork by the end of 2023, with discussions also underway with UK regulators.

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Professor Bruce Whitelaw, interim director of the Roslin Institute, said he believed it would be on sale within three to five years.

"Five years realistic, but it could be sooner," he said. "This virus costs the industry tens of billions worldwide annually, it puts farmers out of business.

"These will be the first pigs resistant to the disease and it has the potential to eradicate the virus within a few years."

The Herald: Professor Bruce WhitelawProfessor Bruce Whitelaw

Prof Whitelaw added: "We will see these products in our supermarkets and on our dinner plates. Animals will be healthier. The whole system will be more productive.

"It will tackle many of the issues our society is worried about in terms of climate change and energy efficiency. It's not a silver bullet, but it will contribute to that."

Dr John Oatley, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University who sat on a taskforce advising the White House on the use of gene editing in livestock, said he believes US regulators will approve the technology for meat products "soon".

He said the advance would allow farmers to produce the same quantities of meat from fewer animals, helping to reduce the industry's carbon footprint and use of resources such as water and feed.

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Farm animals of the future will be "tailored" through gene editing instead of traditional methods such as selective breeding, said Dr Oatley, citing advantages such as resistance to disease and reduced reliance on antibiotics in animals.

"The farm animal of the future will look outwardly very similar but inside they will be genomically very different - much more resilient, able produce more for less and help feed the world."

Dr Oatley said the risks were similar to existing interventions.

"Are there some strange things that could happen? Well, that's already the case with selective breeding. If we chose two animals for selective breeding you run the risk that something off the wall could happen. Really, the risks [of gene editing] are no different to traditional selective breeding."