Precision Agriculture Using Genome Editing for Improving Agricultural Traits

Bhanu Telugu seeks solution for milk allergies through investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Associate Professor of Animal Sciences Bhanu Telugu hopes his work will ultimately help improve milk yield in livestock, and feed babies with milk allergies and set global precedents for the regulation of genetically engineering animal products for consumption by humans. Telugu recently received a $2.34 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support his research.

“We hope to find solution for problems emanating from animal agriculture using genome editing technologies,” Telugu said. “One of those problems is allergies, specifically an allergy to milk. Some babies have a serious allergy to milk.”

He explained that the allergy stems from the presence of betalactoglobuline (BLG), a protein found in dairy products. Because milk and milk-based products make up for most of the diet for infants, the milk allergies represent a major public health concern.

Another problem is low milk yield in dairy animals from south Asia and sub-saharan Africa, where they constitute a major source of income and livelihood to the farmers. Low efficiencies in milk production adds to the financial burden of the farmers and overall poor sustainability of agriculture.

For this project, Telugu is partnering with the National Dairy Research Institute in India, which is the premier research institute in India. This partnership lends several benefits to the project including allowing Telugu to leverage connections in his home country and a greater chance at utilizing genome editing tools to address critical problems in agriculture in India.

“I am excited about this project for the prospect of working closely with colleagues in India and help establish a pipeline for genetic engineering in livestock in India, and potentially establish a pathway for regulatory approval,” Telugu said. “We can actually make a tangible difference.”

Telugu and his team are attempting to modify target genes in water buffalo, which are used for about half of dairy production in India. By editing the genes of the buffalo, he believes he can accomplish the goals of improving lactation yield and other economically important traits in just one or two generations what selective breeding would take a decade to accomplish in this area.

Telugu envisions that successful applications of genome editing in India will ultimately benefit US agriculture as well. He believes that successful application of these technologies on a global stage will improve confidence in precision agriculture, likely lead to harmonization of regulatory processes, and facilitate global trade.