Saturday science subject: Pain-free meat

— 4:13 PM on September 5, 2009

When someone decides to avoid eating meat altogether, animal cruelty often lies pretty high on their list of motives. What if animals in factory farms didn't have to suffer, though? The New Scientist points to a controversial paper that proposes farm-animal breeds be genetically modified to prevent them from feeling pain.

Recent research shows such an endeavor is already technically feasible, albeit on a much smaller scale:

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards (Neuron, vol 36, p 713). This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Other work in Chen's lab suggests genetic engineering may do an even better job at tempering affective pain. Last year, the team identified a gene expressed almost exclusively in the ACC called P311. Mice without P311 recoiled from heat and pressure. But when the team taught their mice to associate a region of their cage with a painful formalin injection, normal mice rapidly learned to avoid that area, while those lacking P311 kept returning.

Factory farming has other disadvantages besides pain for the animals, of course. As Alan Goldberg of Maryland's John Hopkins University points out, large farms "generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance." Also, not everybody might take to the idea. New Scientist writes that an online survey conducted by Gardner and a colleague "found little public support" for pain-free lab animals, "even among researchers who experiment on animals."

In the end, Princeton's Peter Singer, the author of the first paper, suggests lab-grown meat could be a better alternative. That technology remains prohibitively expensive, but New Scientist says a report published last year shows costs "could eventually" go down below €3,500 ($5,000) per metric ton, or about the same price as conventionally harvested meat.

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