June 22 2012 08:12 AM

Chinese low-lactose calf is likely just the beginning of dairy applications.

Put on your Star Wars T-shirt; this is a subject where one's imagination can run wild.

Relatively speaking, genetic engineering is still in its infancy. Practical applications have begun to trickle out of labs, but "some day" is still a far more common status than "it's here now."

In terms of dairy applications, we've mapped the bovine genome and are already using a basic version of cloning, but there's little in the sci-fi category.

That just changed in China, however, where researchers announced earlier this month that they had produced a Holstein calf, born in April, that is genetically engineered to make milk with lower levels of lactose.

We note, however, that the announcement was as much about the trait as it was about the calf still being alive. Two other genetically engineered calves with the same trait died within a day of being born.

The commercial point of such an animal – potentially tens of millions of them, in fact – would be to provide milk and other dairy products for consumers who have limited ability to digest the natural sugar that is lactose.

Sixty percent of China's 1.4 billion people are believed to be lactose-intolerant.

So here we go. Besides low-lactose animals, what other bits of genetic engineering magic might also be possible?

Higher protein content might be one. Lower somatic cell counts might be another. Resistance to diseases would be huge, especially to E. coli, the leading cause of sickness and death in consumers caused by food-borne disease outbreaks. Is there room in the lab to create resistance to Johne's disease? That would be outstanding, too. How about higher feed efficiency and lower production of manure and greenhouse gases?

It's probably too crazy, though, to hope for a cow that doesn't eat or can milk herself.