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This Little Edited Piggy

While the use of gene-editing tools to alter the human genome has given many scientists pause, these tools are also being applied to animals, including farm animals, with less fanfare, the New York Times reports.

For instance, it says that a farm in Iowa has turned to the start-up company Recombinetics to edit the genes of two dairy calves so that they don't sprout horns — farmers typically removed the horns from dairy cattle to prevent injury, though the process is thought to be painful. The company swapped out the snippet of the genome from these dairy cattle that would make them have horns for the bit from Angus beef cattle that makes them have none.

"It's like a find-replace function in the genome of these animals," Scott Fahrenkrug, the chief executive of Recombinetics, tells the Times. "It allows us to find the natural variation that exists across a species and quickly bring it under one hood."

The company is also developing gene-edited pigs that can be fattened up using less food and Brazilian beef cattle with larger muscles. Meanwhile, others are developing pigs that are resistant to African swine fever and chickens that only produce females for laying eggs.

This rapid push, some ethicists say, is leaving public discussion of gene editing of animals behind.

"We're going to see a stream of edited animals coming through because it's so easy," Bruce Whitelaw from the University of Edinburgh tells the Times. "It's going to change the societal question from, 'If we could do it, would we want it?' to, 'Next year we will have it; will we allow it?' "