Scientists Potty Train Cows To Lower Greenhouse Gasses

12:06 minutes

a cow in a field mooing
Credit: Shutterstock

Scientists have known it for a long time: Cattle are a major source of nitrogen emissions, contributing to the global warming crisis. Alternatives have been tossed around for years: from eating less meat to feeding cows seaweed. Now, a new study out of Germany and New Zealand has a more outside-the-box solution: potty-training calves.

Scientists trained cows to pee in just one spot—dubbed the “MooLoo”—so their urine can be cleaned before it seeps into the environment. Most calves got the hang of it within 20-25 pees.

Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this and other science stories of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec. 

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Segment Guests

Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Segment Transcript

UMAIR IRFAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Umair Irfan. I’m a science reporter at Vox and a regular guest on the show. This week, I’m hosting the program while Ira is away. Later this hour, we’ll talk about how we can learn to live with wildfires, and why scientists say 10,000 steps a day may not be the right benchmark for fitness. But first, the COVID 19 pandemic has rippled throughout American political life. Case in point, a new report says that more than half of states have rolled back public health powers during the pandemic.

While this has obvious effects for our current pandemic, these rules could also have consequences for the future of public health in this country. Joining me now to talk about this story and other science news of the week is my guest Roxanne Khamsi, a science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec. Welcome back, Roxanne.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thank you so much, Umair. It’s great to be here.

UMAIR IRFAN: Let’s start with this news about states rolling back public health measures. It seems contrary to logic given the state of the pandemic, but of course, politics have been an undercurrent throughout this ordeal. Why are these rollbacks happening, and how are states justifying this?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, yes. I completely agree with you, and I think it is fascinating that this is happening right now given the pandemic that we’re in. And what happened was, Kaiser Health News did a review of all these recent legislative changes, and they found that 26 states, which is a lot, It’s more than half, have pushed through laws that permanently weaken the government’s authority to protect public health. So we’re talking about at least 16 states have limited the power of public officials to do things like order masks and quarantines, or insist on isolation, and there’s other measures with regards to vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. So this is an example of politics colliding with public health, and it kind of couldn’t come at a worse time.

UMAIR IRFAN: So what is the rationale behind this?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, I think that’s a really good question. I think, obviously, there’s a large contingency of people that believe in their rights are being infringed upon, but at the end of the day, the public health officials are really concerned about the long term effects of these changes, and some of these changes are really not inconsequential.

So in Arkansas, for example, legislators banned mask mandates in places except for private businesses or state run health care facilities. So, I mean, that is like a big impediment to stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the COVID virus. The rationale is unknown to a lot of scientific minds. I think it’s definitely an example where people with a lot of public health expertise are scratching their heads, and frankly, leaving some of these positions because of frustration.

UMAIR IRFAN: And you mentioned the long term effects here, like, could this have effects beyond COVID?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Without a doubt, and I think that that’s something that the public health officials are sounding the alarms about. So you might recall that not too long ago before the pandemic, there were measles outbreaks happening in the US because of declining vaccination. And some of these health officials are worried that with measles, if it comes back in some ways, they might not have the power to enforce some of these rules that they would usually rely on in order to protect us from these outbreaks. And so we’re going to be operating in a little bit of a Wild West because of the rollback, which, by the way, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb these public health powers since the pandemic began. So this is a new era, and it’s concerning.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, let’s shift gears now to a historical event, but one that was long before anyone was around to see it. It turns out the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs altered the course of some of our most well-known reptiles that survived. Tell us about that.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes, so this happened way before the pandemic. We’re talking 66 million years ago. So before you and I were around. And this was that asteroid that came along, and we believe, a lot of people believe, caused all non-bird dinosaurs and a lot of other animals to die. Kind of a massive event where 76% of plants and animals disappeared, so mass extinction we’re talking.

But what was kind of cool, if you’re OK with snakes, is that scientists recently looked and found that a handful of the snakes that survived that catastrophic, awful event really kind of seeded the diversity of snakes that we have right now. And we have a diversity of snakes. We’re talking snakes in trees, snakes underwater, venomous snakes, other kinds of snakes, so it was a real boon for the snakes that could kind of survive underground, and not eat for a while, when this asteroid had hit and caused the world to kind of shift dramatically.

UMAIR IRFAN: So it seems snakes were really well equipped to dodge that massive bullet.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, I mean, you might have seen the Snakes on a Plane movie, but snakes do better than just on a plane. Snakes do great in a catastrophic asteroid situation, and you might know this also, but snakes are so successful on Earth. They’re found in every single continent except for Antarctica, and I bet if there are any snakes listening to us now, they’re probably plotting their adventures to that continent. So snakes are so resilient.

UMAIR IRFAN: Let’s move on to my story about genetics. CRISPR is now a famous technology for gene editing, and it allows scientists to find DNA inside a cell, snip it out, and then replace it. But a recent discovery shows that CRISPR isn’t the only game in town. What else is out there?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, so it’s a kind of variation on CRISPR, and when scientists talk about CRISPR, they often call it the CRISPR Cas9 system. So we often drop the Cas9, and I think Cas9 is probably mad about that, because what CRISPR does is it’s a system that relies on an enzyme called Cas9, which was found, like, in bacteria. And Cas9 is what helps the whole system go towards the specific sequence of DNA that the scientists want to cut around and alter.

And so what scientists did is they were curious about the evolutionary origins of this Cas9 enzyme that the CRISPR genetic editing system relies on, and when they looked, they found there’s, like, a whole diversity of different enzymes in that family. And so they’re thinking, there are all these other kind of scissors that they could be using with the CRISPR system, and who knows if this could help us kind of do different kinds of gene editing or improve the efficiency of our CRISPR gene editing. So it’s a kind of cool look at the variation within this editing system.

UMAIR IRFAN: And CRISPR, obviously, has been very useful to us, but why did these organisms evolve it in the first place?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I mean, that to me is so fascinating. So this is thought to be kind of an ancient bacterial defense mechanism. Like, they want to cut up DNA of other invaders or things like that. This is not a friendly gene editing origin story. This is a, like, let’s get them and cut up their DNA, so they don’t get us story. So that’s the evolutionary origins, it’s believed, of the CRISPR Cas9 system for the bacteria.

UMAIR IRFAN: The next story you brought us is a little bit outside the box. Scientists have now come up with a way to make a concrete light material from blood, sweat, and tears. First of all, ew. Second, why?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I don’t know if you saw the movie with Matt Damon where he’s on Mars, but this definitely was not part of it. He was just growing potatoes, as far as I can recall. But, yeah, so scientists are trying to figure out, if we go to Mars, how are we going to make buildings, and colonies, and what’s the material that we can do this with? Because they can’t take concrete on the mission to Mars. It’s just a little too expensive and heavy to take that building material on the way.

So they’ve got this Martian dust once they get to Mars, but how are they going to mix it up and make it something that you can make a structure out of? Well, as you say, gross. These scientists are looking to use our blood, sweat, and tears, and urine, to mix with that Martian dust. And the reason that these scientists look to that, is that in our blood and your blood, and my blood, everyone’s blood is listening, there’s a protein called human serum albumin.

And this is what they want to take as a way to create this concrete that they called AstroCrete, and they say it’s just as strong as regular concrete. In fact, when they add the urea, which is a part of our urine to the mixture, they say it’s potentially even stronger. So pretty gross, but also, yay, I guess? I don’t know.

UMAIR IRFAN: And, presumably, we’re bringing some of the raw materials inside our own bodies?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Mhm. Absolutely, and I looked at the paper where they were proposing this, and they said that people could donate twice a week. So I’m imagining they’re thinking about hooking up the human beings to donate the plasma. Obviously, it’s a way to get, maybe, a little bit more out of more female astronauts in space, since we’re donating blood by accident every month or so. So, yeah, there’s probably a lot of ways to get blood from people in space, and if it builds you a house on Mars, I think people will serve their arms up and say, let me donate.

UMAIR IRFAN: So turning astronauts into biomaterials factories. That’s so fascinating. Let’s move on to another story that I hope listeners will bear with us is also about bodily functions, but not of humans. Scientists have found a way to potty train cows. What’s going on here?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. OK, so before we talk about what they did, let’s just pause for a second to appreciate that there’s about 1.4 billion cows on Earth, which is a lot of cows. And they emit a lot of, like, wasteful products while they’re hanging around doing their thing. And what happened was there were these scientists that did an experiment in Germany that they called the MooLoo experiment, kind of playing on the word loo that the Brits use.

And they had these cows, they had 16 calves, so like young, cute little cows. And 11 of them were successfully taught to use this MooLoo system, so to pee in the place that they wanted them to pee in just 15 training sessions, which the scientists are like, oh, they’re smarter than little toddlers that are trying to be potty trained. And the reason that they wanted to do this is that when cows excrete either poo or pee, some of that can mix together and kind of contribute to global warming, because it releases this thing called ammonia, which has a nitrogen compound that can get into the atmosphere or get into the systems that will contribute to global warming. So they wanted to basically sequester the urine, and they did that by getting these calves to pee where they wanted them to pee.

UMAIR IRFAN: And what did they do with the pee after they collected it?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So once they had that pee, they basically treated it and neutralized it, so that it posed less of a risk. So they kind of chemically addressed some of these ways in which the urine could mix with other things potentially. But really just taking it aside and putting it someplace where they neutralize it is like a huge boon. Countries like the Netherlands are considering curbing the amount of cattle that they allow, because of this problem of urine and the feces contributing to global warming and things like that. So the Netherlands has, what they’re calling, a nitrogen crisis. And if you can take that urine, which has nitrogen, and sequester it, and neutralize it, perhaps it gets around that problem.

UMAIR IRFAN: And how easy is it to potty train a cow?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I mean, if you’re asking me, 15 training sessions is not that many. I’m sure when my parents potty trained me it took a lot longer. We’re talking diapers, right? So 15 sessions, not too long, pretty doable. And they think that this is, maybe, a window in how we might be able to work with animals in a way to solve environmental issues without compromising their animal welfare, because they gave these cows, these calves, a treat when they peed in the right place– a little food treat– and if they didn’t pee in the right place, they kind of burst them with a little bit of water. So these weren’t really drastic ways of training them. It was just kind of a nice way to– almost like how you train a dog to go pee outside instead of on your carpet.

UMAIR IRFAN: So could we potentially see bathrooms installed in pastures and stockyards in the future?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I think that is not an unforeseen possibility, and I mean, why not? They deserve it. They’re doing so much for us.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, I think we all deserve a little bit of comfort. That’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Roxanne Khamsi, a science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec. Thanks so much for joining us.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thanks, Umair. It’s been great.

UMAIR IRFAN: After the break, as fire seasons get worse and longer in the American West, what are our options for coping in the long run? Why one scientist says that we can and should learn to live with fire. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

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