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Scientists Can Now "Paint" Designs Onto Animal Fur Using Genetics

Cows can have tattoos. Rejoice.

Scientists Can Now "Paint" Designs Onto Animal Fur Using Genetics

Photo: Roman Pyshchyk via Shutterstock

Genetic engineering can now be used to add custom graphics to an animal fur or to change the color of its coat entirely. The newly patented process could, says MIT Technology Review senior editor Antonio Regalado, be used to add barcodes to cattle or create dalmatians with some truly bizarre spots.

The method comes from a company called AgGenetics and was invented in an idle moment by founder James West. AgGenetics’ regular business is creating white Angus cattle that won’t feel heat stress when bred in hot, sunny environments.

1stphoto via Shutterstock

West’s method uses a genetic tool from DuPont, called Cre-Lox, which adds a gene to an animal’s DNA that remains inactive until it comes into contact with an enzyme. Cre-Lox doesn't do anything itself. It is a trigger and can be attached to other genes in order to switch them on, permanently and at will.

West hit upon the idea of using Cre-Lox to switch on a gene that turns hair black. By painting the enzyme onto the fur of an animal, its color is changed at the genetic level. The work isn’t actually done with a brush. Instead, a needle is used to "tattoo" the enzyme into each hair follicle, switching it over to produce black hair from then on.

Combined with West’s white Angus cattle, this technology could be used to tattoo scannable bar codes onto the flanks of the beasts, and those codes could not be erased.

And lest you thought that genetics was a wholly serious business, you should take a look at possibly the best part of the whole story—this paragraph from Regalado’s article:

Not everyone thinks coloring-book animals are a worthwhile endeavor. "This is dumb," says Scott Fahrenkrug, the founder of Recombinetics, a company engineering cattle using new gene-editing techniques. His company managed to make dairy cows without horns, which they usually have. He says if you want to put a logo on the side of a dog it might be easier to use hair dye.

Of course, it’s genetics, and the need to have the genes inserted before birth rules out this kind of "therapy" as a way to color our gray hair back to black when we get old.

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