Can we modify cows to make ivory?

19 May 2015

Question

Since I first learned of the concept of "gene splicing" some decades ago, I have wondered why no one has addressed the following: Why not genetically engineer beef cattle so their horns will be "naturally" made of ivory? Yes, ivory. Both substances are (to my untrained eye) remarkably similar in appearance and consistency. I expect the animal wouldn't know the difference and would not suffer (more than it already does). More than 30 million head of cattle are produced each year in the U.S. alone. Within a short time, ivory would be as rare and treasured as styrofoam. An incredible 50,000 elephants are slaughtered each year for their tusks. That would end almost overnight. The developer of this process would "single handedly" save one of the most majestic creatures on the planet.

Answer

We put John's interesting suggestion to Kat Arney...

Kat - I love this idea. I think this is such a great idea. Unfortunately, it's not going to work because the problem is, is that the substance that makes ivory is basically teeth - same thing as your teeth. It's teeth and tusks, they're dentine covered with this hard, white enamel. So, in terms of the development of where the teeth come from and where ivory tusks come from, it's all kind of part of the toothy stuff but cow horns are actually made of living bone, covered with a really thick layer of keratin. It's the same protein that's in your skin, your hair, your nails, that kind of thing. and so, they have a completely different developmental origin. They're growing out of the skull. So, to actually switch cow horns into making ivory, you're asking bones to turn into teeth and grow in a completely wrong place because cow's teeth obviously grow in their mouths, not out of the top of their heads. So although it's a lovely idea, I don't think that's going to work.

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