Feeding the World Through Genetic Engineering: An Interview with Noelle Cockett

Pete CodellaArticles

This is the sixth of a series of conversations with Utah women building disruptive technologies.  I’m Kimberly Zhang. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I sat down with Dr. Noelle Cockett, the Utah State University executive vice president, provost and professor in the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences. We chatted about the career she has built in sheep genetics and how her innovative research is transforming today’s agricultural practices.

What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?

I grew up in Montana. I have always loved the west and enjoy a lot of outdoor recreation. My husband’s family has a condo in Park City, so we have always vacationed in Utah. The first time I was in Logan was for a national meeting, the American Society of Animal Science. I was based in Nebraska so my colleagues and I drove here and fell in love with Cache Valley because of its beauty. I have focused on agriculture throughout my academic career so it made sense that I would go to the land grant institution. Soon after seeing the campus, I saw a position in my field of genetics, so I applied, and was offered the job.

Tell me about the highlights of your research.

Since coming to USU, I have focused on the genetics and genomics. Although my previous research was on beef cattle, no one was using the USU sheep facilities when I arrived. My first research project was on a recessive genetic disorder called Spider Lamb Syndrome. If one of the parents is a carrier, then they look normal. If two carriers mate, one quarter of the offspring display the disorder. Producers who want to eliminate the disorder from their flock will need to get rid of the lamb, parents and all other siblings. Although they all look normal, they could be carrying a copy of the Spider Lamb mutation.

To identify the causative mutation, we collected blood samples from the defective lambs and their parents and harvested the DNA from the samples. We tested a large number of genetic markers across the DNA and eventually traced the mutation to a particular spot of the DNA on chromosome six in the sheep genome. The mutation is found within a gene called FGFR3 which regulates bone growth nucleotide of DNA (abbreviated to A, G, T, and C) in a specific order in each cell – this is what makes up the genome. One single nucleotide change in the FGFR3 gene causes the Spider Lamb disorder because bone growth is not regulated properly by the defected protein produced from the gene. A mutation in another region of the human FGFFR3 gene results in dwarfism because the resulting protein works too well and turns off bone growth prematurely. The mutation for Spider Lamb Syndrome was one of the first genetic markers discovered in livestock. Now there is a genetic test that producers can have their sheep tested for by sending in a blood sample. The defect has been mostly eliminated from sheep populations.

My next big research project was on callipyge sheep. The callipyge trait is named after Venus and it means beautiful buttocks. For a producer, the callipyge trait is beautiful because more meat is produced. Using a similar approach to the one we used with Spider Lamb Syndrome, we found a single nucleotide change on sheep chromosome 18. However, the callipyge trait is only expressed when the male parent passes on the mutation and the female parent passes on a normal copy of the DNA. This type of gene action is very unusual. The mutation results increased muscle by 33 percent and decreased fat by 8 percent in the affected sheep. Unfortunately, the meat is a little tough. Rather than saying the callipyge meat is tough, I always say that it has a tenderness issue. The U.S. sheep producers pride themselves on delivering a tender product to its customers. So when the callipyge trait was discovered, most U.S. producers said, “We can’t put callipyge out there.”

At a conference, a graduate student from Africa came up to me and said, “Tenderness is not an issue in developing countries.” That really stuck with me. However, sheep are difficult to raise in developing countries because of health issues and their need for a relatively high quality of food. Goats, on the other hand, are “foragers” so they eat twigs and other lower quality food. I’ve always thought the callipyge goats might be a good option for meat production in developing countries because these animals would produce more protein without any extra feed. Recently, scientists developed a straightforward way of editing DNA. This process of genetic editing has allowed USU to introduce the callipyge mutation into goats. There are three males that carry the callipyge mutation at USU. We are waiting to see if their goat offspring express the callipyge trait.

How did you go from genomic studies to genetic editing in live goats?

Genetic editing is a type of genetic modification that I firmly believe is safe to eat. The likelihood of the single base changing in a goat that causes callipyge is so rare that it essentially is not going to happen. But we were able to change the specific base with genetic editing and create a healthy goat that we can send to developing countries and help resolve food insecurity that exists there. People who are against genetically modified generally have a very secure food system that is safe, abundant and cheap. It is my opinion that people in developed countries must be careful about telling developing countries that have food shortages that genetic modified food is off the table. If the end product is safe, then it doesn’t matter that we genetically edited and introduced the mutation.

Genetically modified animals used to be created using retroviruses that left residuals of DNA behind. In genetic editing, only the nucleotide(s) that need to be changed are altered and nothing is left behind. It’s called the CRISPer system using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

What inspired you to pursue this specific type of research and research in general? unnamed

Genetics is a combination of biology and math. I have always been fascinated by both topics.  I grew up on a ranch and went to a Catholic school from first to twelfth grade. The nuns often told us, “You have an ability and you need to use it.”

I was going to become a veterinarian, because that was the only science type of profession that I knew. I went to college at Montana State University but my grades weren’t very good and I was almost put on probation. That made me realize that I wasn’t going to get into vet school but I kept taking math, biology and chemistry classes. When I was a junior, I took a genetics class and realized how much I liked it so that is what I pursued in graduate school. My bachelor’s degree is in animal science and my doctorate degree is in animal genetics.

What would you say the proudest moment of your career is?

I have to say finding the sheep callipyge gene. I was invited to several important conferences to present the results. I was analyzing data in Salt Lake City with a colleague and all of sudden we discovered the location of the callipyge gene on chromosome 18. That night I was driving through Salt Lake thinking about the discovery and I drove right through a red light! All of these cars were beeping at me and all I could think about was callipyge. It was very exciting.

What advice would you give to a young person?

Be positive. I just don’t see any reasons to see a glass as half empty. There are some people who always say, “Well, the problem is…” That drives me crazy.

In Short:

In agriculture, we are truly concerned about feeding the world.