Guelph to downsize Enviropig research

Researchers in Ontario plan to wind down the breeding work on a line of hogs genetically modified for more efficient use of phosphorus in their diets.

Ontario Pork, one of the key funders in the development of the "Enviropig" line at the University of Guelph, recently announced the university is "reducing the scope of its Enviropig research" when Ontario Pork pulls its funding from the project this spring.

The Guelph-based hog industry organization has "decided to redirect its research dollars," but added that research on the Enviropig line has been completed to a point where the genetics have been "proven" and their value has been documented.

At this point, Ontario Pork said on its website, the university has decided the project "is at a point where it is best for industry or a receptor to take it over" and the school’s business development office will look for "potential commercialization/industry opportunities."

Research on the Enviropig will continue, but in "a more cost-effective way that does not require the continual breeding and generation of live animals," Ontario Pork said.

The Enviropig line of genetically modified Yorkshires was invented by Guelph professors Cecil Forsberg and John Phillips, with University of Delaware professor Serguei Golovan.

The breeding line includes a composite gene allowing the animals to produce an acid phosphatase enzyme, commonly called phytase, in the salivary glands and secrete it in their saliva.

The composite gene was created with a gene from an E. coli strain that makes phytase, plus a "very small portion" of a gene from a mouse that controls the production of proteins secreted in the salivary gland.

As Enviropigs digest typical hog feed, phytase is active in their stomachs, degrading otherwise-indigestible phytate that accounts for 50 to 75 per cent of their ration’s grain-based phosphorus.

With the animals’ feed phosphorus digested, the project’s backers say, there would be no need for an Enviropig producer to supplement the diet with either mineral phosphate or commercially-produced phytase.

Furthermore, the animals shed less phosphorus in their manure, which would reduce their environmental impact in areas where soil phosphorus is beyond a desirable level.

"Relieved"

Wayne, the first Enviropig, arrived in 1999, followed by Cassie, whose breeding line was submitted to regulators in Canada and the U.S. in 2009 and 2007 respectively, for approval for human food consumption and commercialization.

Ontario Pork noted it has a joint development agreement with the university for the sharing of any revenue that may be realized when or if the Enviropig technology is commercialized.

Member groups in the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) on Monday cheered the university’s decision to end the breeding program, and urged the school to "withdraw its request for approval from Health Canada and not pursue commercialization."

"It’s clear that consumers oppose GM (genetically modified) animals so we’re relieved the project is being shelved," Ottawa-area farmer Paul Slomp, the youth vice-president for the National Farmers Union, said in CBAN’s release.

"The GM pig was going to drive consumers away from eating pork if it was ever approved for market (and) could have permanently damaged our domestic and international pork markets."

Quebec meat packer Olymel, for one, went on the record last year as saying it had no intention of marketing pork derived from genetically modified pigs, in either domestic or export markets.

Related story:
NFU says no to Enviropig, March 14, 2011

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