A DNA pollution solution?

big cow! When you think of greenhouse gas emissions, you probably think, “Ah, it’s all the cars people drive, that’s what contributes to the greenhouse effect!”  That’s what most people believe about greenhouse gases and air pollution, anyway.  But did you know that the major contributor to greenhouse gases comes from the gastrointestinal emissions of ruminant animals like cows and sheep?

That’s right, folks.  Cow and sheep burps and farts generate most of the methane that makes up the greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.  The construction of a ruminant animal’s digestive tract is slightly different than that of other herbivores in that there is a chamber known as a rumen where fermentation of food matter takes place.  Many bacteria, fungi, protists and viruses inhabit the rumen, and most of these play a role in helping the animal to digest plant fibers.  When these fibers are digested, a great deal of methane and carbon dioxide are produced, which make it into the atmosphere through eructation and release of flatus (the scientific ways to say ‘burp’ and ‘fart’).  The amounts of the various gases emitted depend on the diet eaten by the animal.  A diet rich in grain causes cows to produce less methane, while a diet rich in hay and other grasses produces large quantities of methane.

Stephen Moore of the University of Alberta has a two-pronged approach to solving this problem.  Moore and his colleagues have studied selective breeding in cattle as well as genetic modification of feed crops as a way to potentially reduce methane emissions by cows.  Moore posits that if the feed cows eat is modified so that it causes the cow to release less methane that perhaps overall greenhouse gases may be reduced in the atmosphere.  Moore and his colleagues have also identified several regions of the bovine genome that regulate immune system activity, which helps determine what microbes can inhabit the rumen.   This is important since you should note that it is the microbes that produce the methane, not the cow itself.  But the cow can regulate what microbes live within its rumen by modulation from the immune system.  Then, by selectively breeding cattle that naturally release less methane from the foodstuffs they eat, Moore believes that methane emissions can be drastically reduced.

This is an incredible discovery, but it is not without its problems, which lie chiefly with the cost to farmers and ultimately, consumers.  To produce both cattle and crops that are genetically engineered, a large amount of money must be invested in the biotechnology companies responsible for developing these organisms.  The costs of this investment are ultimately passed on to farmers, who must purchase these organisms.  Then the costs are passed along to the consumer when the organism or any product from the organism is produced, such as milk or meat from the cows.

Another issue that is a thorny one is the issue of whether people would consume products from genetically modified animals.  It has already been demonstrated that many people worldwide are resistant to the idea of eating cloned meat.  Even though the US Food and Drug Administration has declared cloned meat and milk safe to eat and drink, a majority of people are not convinced.  Might this prejudice against cloned organisms for consumption extend to genetically modified organisms as well?  Even if the organisms in question are being modified in an effort to mitigate a global problem–greenhouse gas emissions–should public opinion on GMO’s get in the way of solving this problem?

97 thoughts on “A DNA pollution solution?

  1. BJ Dornubari

    In this situation i think that slowly we can begin to work on engineering eco friendly cows. In the meantime, by selective breeding and conforming feed to suit the environment we can make a cost conscious first step.

  2. Alicia Crosswhite

    I think switching to other meats is plausible, but I’m not willing to give up the beef and I’m pretty sure there are multitudes saying the same thing. Unfortunately, the food sources for the cows have alarming extras that they didn’t before. The reason for this is mass production and cheaper expenses. Like I said before the farmer shouldn’t be blamed, merely the price of organic nutrients should be.

  3. BJ Dornubari

    This does come as a shock to me, i wouldn’t expect farm animals to have crucial farts that contributes to greenhouse gases and air polution.

  4. BJ Dornubari

    I see a problem of changing the diet of cows. The first being that hay is a relatively cheap source of food for the cows compared to a much easily digested grain. This also creates competition for us who use grain as a food source.

  5. Matt Whitton

    I do remember something like this on the show Dirty Jobs that some farms actually collect the CO2 and methane that is built up from cattle fecal matter by covering the farms sewage tank with a type of sturdy, air tight cloth. In one day the pool of sewage had 4000 cubed feet of methane built up under the cloth. Now multiply it by the thousands. Thats alot.

  6. BJ Dornubari

    I believe that genetic engineering is a better alternative to change than cloning, this will create less friction with consumers and activists. Plus in the US you do not have to advertise that your product is genetically enhanced. In other places around the world this is manditory, which could cause resentment

  7. Angeleen

    WOWWW that is so weird! Who knew the powerful effect that cows and sheep have on our environment? It’s so hard to believe that they affect our environment more than car emissions. If this is true then we should shift our focus on feeding them a better diet rather than trying to find alternate car fuels that would produce less emissions. Changing their diet is a much simpler problem to solve and would be far more effective so why dont we try that?

  8. Katie McIntyre

    I think it is ridiculous to think that we can change the cows, wouldnt it be easier to contain the cows or create some sort of filter for them? Besides i believe we probably contribute to the pollution much more than the cows themselves.

  9. Matt Whitton

    I can’t believe they actually genefically atler living organisims to a person’s favored trait. To me thats a huge step in todays technology.

  10. Punit Kapadia

    I can see both sides in this case, but i believe that we already eat meat that has been through so many processes and with so many chemicals that there really isn’t a difference. The fact that we will be helping the environment is a bigger plus, i believe that the public should have a large say in this because we are the consumers in this case.

  11. BJ Dornubari

    There might be other and less cost effective methods and i think if they draw attention to the problem, there might be organizations and groups that could come together and make solving this problem more of a reality.

  12. devon maxey

    if this is the case, and cows do emit the majority of greenhouse gases into the environment, then maybe people have been taking all of the “humans are causing glabal warming” a little too far; maybe a little over-exacerbating of the topic?

  13. Paul Nguyen

    I too think that would be interesting. People would be torn between eating cloned meat and helping the world they live in. I think that people would side more on cloned meat because the greenhouse gases would affect more people. Eating cloned meat would be a personal decision.

  14. Mike Mansell

    I heard that when a volcano errupts it releases more toxic gases than what we as humans produce in a decade. I find it interesting though that animals contribute a big part to the green house effect. I still think that we should take care of the planet regardless of the stats that are known.

  15. Mike Mansell

    How is it that some types of grain contribute less to this effect and other grasses increase this effect? My guess and correct me if I’m wrong would be that the grasses are rich in fiber and the grains have little to no fiber.

  16. Sarah Black

    I think that this problem might have been blown slightly out of proportion. I mean, these animals have been living on the earth long before all of these technological advances came along. But, these greenhouse problems are just now showing up…curious, no? I am not denying that the animals contribute to the problem, these ideas of genetically modifying animals and such seem a little to…over-the-top.

  17. Kelly Doyle

    This reminds me of a Harvest Moon game where an evil scientist in your village would steal your cows if he could, due to them causing global warming and all. Anyways, I personally don’t think that the effect cows have on the world’s temperature and such is great enough to evoke action from the farmers. I personally think that the greenhouse effect is abit overblown, and that atmosphere tends to flucuate naturally.
    It’d be too costly, without enough reason to do it, to genetically engineer cows.

  18. Kathryn Davis

    Chage can be a nasty problem. I myself think that cloning an animal and eating it is a little strange, even if it is okayed by the US food and Drug Administration, I don’t think I would eat it regularly. I think the meat we eat now is modified enough, but I find that if another modification could cut down the greenhouse gas emissions, then I would be more adapted to change. And for the people who still don’t agree, they can go vegan.

  19. Ashley Ramdeen

    Another solution would be to alter our diets. If the public was to lay off ruminant animals then farms would have no need to breed so many and the greenhouse effect would be deferred. Although this form of action would be almost impossible to incorporate (due to the population’s dependency on fast food etc.) it would be, comparativly, the fastest way to produce results.

  20. Brandon Pekarek

    I think that people should be more educated on the subject of genetically modified food so that they could make an informed decision on whether or not to eat it. People seem to be swayed easily by friends’ and other people’s opinions without knowing any real facts on the subject themselves.

  21. Brandon Pekarek

    I did not know that animals were the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and it surprises me that we haven’t taken many steps to stop this form of emission and instead have tried to make our automobiles more environmentally friendly. The reason may be money, as making cleaner cars seems cheaper than genetically engineering animals and plants, but if more people were working on it i’m sure we could find an efficient way to fix this problem…eventually.

  22. Brandon Pekarek

    The reason that this costs so much is because it is relatively new technology and is not highly developed and perfected. With time i think this will become the more cost efficient procedure.

  23. Tyler Bevan

    Its possible that just because the meat is cloned people will reject the animals as well because they’re “unnatural” or something along those lines. Its a problem that people are not willing to look at facts and figure out what is best in the long run they need to just get over the fact and let it happen, because they could either eat some clone meat or potentially destroy the earth. Of course thats a rather unlikely.

  24. Ben Wise

    It seems to me that although there are people who are against the cloning of such animals, I think that these are the same people who are the most vocal on environmental issues and if it came down to it, would choose helping the environment over some iffy meat.

  25. Tyler Bevan

    I’ve heard this before but i didn’t know it was true. It makes sense though there is probably more cars than cows, but cars are not constantly running unlike cows which have to be dead to stop running. There is millions of farting cows in the world so it adds up, plus cows make more cows. Something should probably be done.

  26. Ben Wise

    Even though, according to this article, most of the greenhouse gases comes from ruminant animals, it has been only in the past decade or so that emissions has had an ill effect on the environment while these animals have been around for thousands of years. We can’t help how much cows fart but we can help how we treat the environment.

  27. Ellie

    I think that if more people really knew what genetically modified meant there wouldn’t be such a problem. I wish more people were biologically literate.

  28. scienceguru Post author

    I wish the same thing…if people were more scientifically literate, perhaps some of the issues that we blog about wouldn’t be such big, hot-button issues.

  29. Melyssa Son

    The problem with that is that we don’t use cattle just for meat. Cutting out cows would mean eliminating all dairy products and beef products from the American Diet. Considering most people get their calcium from dairy products, this solution is not feasible.

  30. Gabe Santos

    That’s why there is a biology class, to educate people about these types of issues. However, the rest of the world doesn’t get the same kind of education that the United States does. It alters their perspective greatly on the subject of cloning and such, (I’m not even counting the problems the United States has even with its well-to-do education). I believe issues about cloning and DNA involving topics will always be a debate in the world, until other problems such as the standard of living and education are ever solved, which isn’t gonna be nowhere near the future.

  31. Christina

    wow i didn’t know that! i feel kind of relieved actually (maybe now i’m not single handedly destroying the earth as i thought i was? ;P). But still this is a major problem and one that maybe science and technology could possibly alleviate a little.

  32. Christina

    Adding to the problem of cost is also this problem of people not wanting to eat genetically modified meat, but this proves to be a conflict between choosing their morals over saving the earth. If only the people were more aware of the effects of greenhouse gases and also a bit more educated in the areas of genetic engineering, then possibly, that could be the solution to our crisis.

  33. Priscilla Quach

    Actually I have to agree with Jesse. Cows have probably been farting and burping longer than we’ve been driving and I think the planet was getting along fine before cars were invented. Even if gas from cows and sheep are a major contributer to greenhouse gases, what gives us the right to change the lifestyle of these animals? We should be changing our own lifestyle like Ashley says.

  34. Rachel Trahan

    This really is a huge step in technology, but is it really something that money should be poured into and lost over? It would be first of all, very unrealistic to switch every cow in the world into a “green” cow because there are so many. Only the few richer land owners or the government would be able to change their cows, and so the impact on the greenhouse effect would be very tiny. I’m not saying this is not a scientific discovery that should be discredited, but maybe it should be applied to something that could make a bigger difference.

  35. Anudeep Dasaraju

    Well is it just me or does anyone else find this incredibly hilarious. anyways I find it intriguing that global warming is caused by a bunch of farting cows. This makes me question whether Al Gore is insane, or if this whole global warming is as much a concern as we are making out to be.

  36. Anudeep Dasaraju

    So since these herbivores are so flatulent, this made me wonder about how much the dinosaurs farted, i assume a lot. I figure that the same kind of digestive techniques were used by our large friendly triceratops. So how much gas were they releasing… hmm maybe the whole meteor thing is just a bunch of hot air… see what i did there…? Who would have thought the dino’s farted themselves to death?

  37. Christiana Kittelson

    Cloning and being genetically modified range drastically in terms of definition and thus the population should be more versed in what it means to be genetically modified, and the potential side effects of such. The public opinion should have sway over the GMO’s well because the public buys the product. Even if they did it anyway its not going to have an effect of whether if they public buys them.

  38. Christiana Kittelson

    It just goes to show you what politics have taught us! Cows are crucial for the economy and our environment. This delicate balance of methane emission from cattle is, I think important,and should be paid attention to.

  39. Melyssa Son

    I agree. I think that by cloning that perfect cow over and over to get a large yield of lean meat stops the natural evolutionary process. As our environment changes, if we stop evolution, we may endanger the species.

  40. Andrea Grbavac

    Genetic modification definitely involves taking a gamble. Scientists can not accurately predict exactly how the cows will be affected. Consequently, the beef consumed by humans may be altered negatively.

  41. Andrea Grbavac

    I agree that there is an issue in that people are uneducated about cloned meat and are therefore against it. People often find some way to oppose ideas/theories that they are unfamiliar with. I believe that educating the masses about scientific advancements is key in solving issues like this one.

  42. Meghan

    Haha, this is kinda hilarious in a weird way??
    But it’s pretty awesome…they are finding weird ways to cut down on emissions like painting roofs white which will apparently cut down about 11 years of cars’ effects on the environment.
    And, I wonder how they measure the emissions made by the cows…

  43. Lauren Miller

    I think that genetically cloning is interesting but unnecessary. For many generations farmers have raised ruminant animals and the Earth is still around. Their farts and burps may emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but I don’t think it’s enough to cause a drastic change.

  44. Lauren Miller

    I am not really a fan of eating genetically cloned animals even though it is thought of as safe. The thought of the animal being cloned doesn’t sound very appetizing. It is very cool how scientists can change the different tracts of the cloned animal. I don’t think it is necessary to do that though if it harms the animal.

  45. Meghan

    Is it a safe way to breed the cows?
    Will they start having like…spontaneous combustion due to the intake of methane an not being able to expel it?
    Haha, remake of the southpark episode???
    I dunno…it just sounds a little fishy and if it’s not harmful…is it worth all the money and effort?

  46. Mayra Ramirez

    People need to understand what the term “genetically modified” actually means. If they become more biologically literate, then they will be more open-minded and willing to preserving our environment.

  47. Victoria Vish

    I agree with Jesse…once the economy does better, maybe scientists can put forth more money towards testing and perform different experiments with the discovery

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