The promising future of biotechnology


The dairy industry continues to be at the forefront of agricultural biotechnology. Scientific feeding of cows, genetic selection, artificial insemination, and enhanced disease-control are just a few of the advances that have benefited the dairy industry. A more recent example is the use of bST to increase milk yield.

The magnitude of these advances is best appreciated when you consider that total milk production in the United States is greater today with 50 percent fewer cows than in the 1940s.

However, there are concerns. Regulatory agencies, consumers and many in the dairy industry itself have concerns regarding the safety of genetically modified food, and several consumer groups have been quite vocal about this. A significant educational and public-relations effort will be needed. 

Producers also play an important role in gaining consumer acceptance of current and emerging biotechnology. As spokespersons for the industry, you need to have a basic understanding of the technology so that when questions are asked, you can respond.


Biotechnology defined
Biotechnology is defined broadly as a collection of technologies that utilize biological or living systems of plant, animal or microbial origin, or specific compounds derived from these systems for the production of industrial goods and services.

Biotechnology has facilitated the discovery of new molecules, such as bacteriocins and antimicrobial peptides that are being evaluated for the treatment and prevention of dairy-cattle diseases.

There also is much interest in “molecular pharming.” This uses transgenic dairy cows to produce pharmaceuticals in the blood or milk that can be used to treat human diseases. Cloned dairy cows are being used to determine potential genes, immune components, or other factors associated with mastitis resistance.

Several techniques have been developed for the rapid detection of veterinary, human and foodborne pathogens. Some of these techniques can identify mastitis pathogens directly from milk. 

Identification of virulence factor genes has resulted in the discovery of new molecules that are involved in the disease process. One example is the discovery of Streptococcus uberis Adhesion Molecule, or SUAM, by scientists at the University of Tennessee. SUAM is involved in adherence of Strep. uberis to the milk-producing cells of the udder and is being evaluated as a potential vaccine for the prevention of mastitis. 

In addition, there are several promising biotechnology prospects on the horizon. Some of those include:

  • Marker-assisted selection that could be used to select dairy cattle that are more resistant to mastitis and other diseases.
  • New molecules and vaccines for treatment and prevention of dairy-cattle disease.
  • Development of transgenic disease-resistant cows.
  • Transgenic cows that produce hard-to-obtain bio-pharmaceuticals for treatment of human disease (i.e. hormones and blood-clotting factors).
  • Designer milk with increased concentrations of desirable components, such as casein, or decreased concentrations of less-desirable components.
  • Rapid and inexpensive on-farm (in-line and hand-held devices) and nanotechnology pathogen-detection platforms.


Future implications
Advances in biotechnology and molecular biology could have a fundamental impact and perhaps revolutionize production agriculture systems as we now know them. Enhanced disease resistance, improved productivity, and enhancement of food quality and quantity are just a few of the possibilities that could impact the agricultural sector in the not-too-distant future. The future is promising.


Stephen Oliver is a professor in the Department of Animal Science and co-director of the Food Safety Center of Excellence at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.