China’s western Shaanxi Province is known for rugged windswept terrain and its coal and wool, but not necessarily its science. Yet at the Shaanxi Provincial Engineering and Technology Research Center for Shaanbei Cashmere Goats, scientists have just created a new kind of goat, with bigger muscles and longer hair than normal. The goats were made not by breeding but by directly manipulating animal DNA—a sign of how rapidly China has embraced a global gene-changing revolution.
Geneticist Lei Qu wants to increase goatherd incomes by boosting how much meat and wool each animal produces. For years research projects at his lab in Yulin, a former garrison town along the Great Wall, stumbled along, Qu’s colleagues say. “The results were not so obvious, although we had worked so many years,” his research assistant, Haijing Zhu, wrote in an e-mail.
That changed when the researched adopted the new gene-customizing technology called CRISPR–Cas9, a technique developed in the U.S. about three years ago. CRISPR uses enzymes to precisely locate and snip out segments of DNA, much like a word-processor finding and deleting a given phrase—a process known as “gene-editing.” Although it is not the first tool scientists have used to tweak DNA, it is by far more precise and cheaper than past technologies. The apparent ease of this powerful method now raises both tantalizing possibilities and pressing ethical questions.