Brand New Genes

By / Food / March 7th, 2011 / Like

The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency has handed Genome Alberta $4.5 million in funding for nine research projects to help improve the quality, reputation and health of Alberta’s livestock. Researchers will look at why E. Coli reaches high levels inside healthy cattle and why those microorganisms are then shed becoming a serious problem for people.

I know that applying simple solutions to complex problems doesn’t usually work. But, I have to scratch my head here. Tossing $4.5 million after genome research when there are probably a few other, perhaps less expensive, ideas that might help mitigate the problem seems a little suspicious to me. Before I rant any further, here’s a little glossary of terms that might shed some light on what this is all about.

Genomic – having to do with genomes.
Genomes – all of the genetic information contained in a sequence of DNA, like your hair colour and whether or not you’ve ended up with your grandmother’s nose.
E. Coli – full name: Escherichia coli O157:H7; very bad dudes who will make you very, very sick if you end up inadvertently ingesting them.
Bioactive compound – something that has an effect on living tissue, like glucosinolates in broccoli which act as antioxidants when we eat them.

So, researchers want to map out what each gene in a cow’s DNA does so they can develop new bioactive compounds that will control E. Coli levels. I realize I’m sailing against the wind here, but why are we relying on the gene pool to solve this problem when there are other possible ways (that reside outside of a cow’s body) of fixing it. The first thing to remember is that E. Coli exists naturally within the gut of all cattle. The problem occurs when those natural levels increase to unnatural levels. That’s when cattle start shedding them (in their manure, if you must know). For what it’s worth, here’s a not-so-novel idea that could solve at least part of the problem. How about steering away from factory farming? Farms that allow cattle free range leaving them to graze in the pasture instead of feeding them grain in a warehouse type set-up show much lower (and more stable) E. Coli numbers. Letting cattle graze on grass means that a farm will be able to support far fewer cattle than one that limits their roaming room and feeds them sacks of grain. Yes, I know that implementing this idea narrows the farmer’s profit margin. But, don’t you think the ultimate health benefits are worth it?

E. Coli that’s shed in manure cause problems for humans because it ends up in run-off from farms that eventually trickles its way into the local water supply or onto land that’s used for growing food. If you ascribe to the idea above, once you’ve put your cows out to pasture for their meals, you won’t have to worry about super high levels of E. Coli showing up in their manure. But still, any amount of it near anything used for human consumption could cause monumental health problems. Here’s another tried-and-true answer: dig a ditch. A bunch of European farmers discovered that if they built an embankment, any excess rain water or farm run-off would be completely contained and kept away from any local water sources. The trapped water would just evaporate away. Not a bad solution.

Alright, fiddling with genes is ultimately a lot easier than re-working the entire farming system, and these ideas I’ve mentioned might not be perfect or address every aspect of the problem. But, I’m willing to bet that they’d go a long way in helping to make the food we eat safer and maybe even tastier.


Rosemary Mantini has always loved words. When she isn't working as the Associate Editor at Tidings Magazine, she's helping others achieve their writing dreams, and sometimes she even relaxes with a good book and a glass of wine.

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