Belgian Blue, Who Knew?

OK, I won’t go in to HOW I got to this point, it’s one of those “Connections” things… (started with an Autistic Veterinarian named Temple Grandin)

But I ended up at the Belgian Blue.

Belgian Blue Bull Bambino

Belgian Blue Bull Bambino

Original Full Sized Image

They deliberately shave the fur to show off the muscles on these cows and bulls. And do it in places only a chef could appreciate… Now that’s a “rump roast” if ever I’ve seen one.

Here is a short video about them that touches on the genetics involved:

So what is so interesting about a cow?

These cows have LOADS of muscles.

The growers and developers are interested in that, as it gives more pounds of saleable meat per animal. All well and good. What interested me was another directions. These animals are the result of a standard breeding program to select for a ‘knockout gene’. There is a gene that controls the growth of muscles. These animals have a broken copy…


Belgian Blue cattle are a beef breed from Belgium, known in French as Race de la Moyenne et Haute Belgique. Alternative names include Belgian Blue-White, Belgian White and Blue Pied, Belgian White Blue, Blue and Blue Belgian. The sculpted, heavily muscled appearance is known as “double muscling”, and is a trait shared by the Piedmontese breed. They are named for their typically blue-grey mottled hair colour, although it can vary from white to black.

The Belgian Blue has a natural mutation of the gene that codes for myostatin, a protein that counteracts muscle growth. The truncated myostatin is unable to function in this capacity, resulting in accelerated lean muscle growth, due primarily to hyperplasia rather than hypertrophy. The defect in the breed’s myostatin gene is maintained through linebreeding. This mutation also interferes with fat deposition, resulting in very lean meat. The neonatal calf is so large that Caesarean sections are routinely done. Double-muscled cows also can experience dystocia, even when bred to normal beef bulls or dairy bulls, because of narrowing of the birth canal.

Knockout the gene, instant Mr. Atlas … at least in cows and bulls. But all mammals are far more alike than different at the genetic level. Especially at the level of basic control genes and structural genes. It is almost 100.00% probable that we have the same gene in us.

So, first person to invent / discover a way to bind to the gene, bind to the protein it produces, or otherwise make a drug that slows down or shuts off that gene is going to be a $Billionaire. Take a pill until your muscles are the size you like, then cut back… Want an army of Super Soldiers? A pill a day is all it takes, no need for all those weights and running… (though the initial form would likely be a shot instead of a pill).

We already have drugs that work by these methods on other genes and other proteins. This cow tells us exactly what gene to hit. The rest is just lab work and “perspiration” (followed by 10 years at the FDA for America and endless carping from all sorts of folks…)

Yes, you would need to initially “sell” it as medicine for folks with various forms of wastage. The Elderly, cancer patients, and several other diseases. But we all know it would not stay there for long. There would likely be a big secondary market on farms raising other breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, you name it.

I doubt if anyone else has “made that connection” just yet, but it’s only a matter of time…

So, who wants to be a millionaire overnight, (a billionaire a bit later)? All I ask is that you call it The Smith Treatment, and put a picture of a well muscled Blacksmith on the package ;-)

Update, just moments later

So I did a bit more digging… Looks like there is almost the same drug / idea in the works. It hits several other pathways too, so could likely be improved to be more selective, but it DOES increase muscle mass.


Follistatin is being studied for its role in regulation of muscle growth in mice, as an antagonist to myostatin (also known as GDF-8, a TGF superfamily member) which inhibits excessive muscle growth. Lee & McPherron demonstrated that inhibition of GDF-8, either by genetic elimination (knockout mice) or by increasing the amount of follistatin, resulted in greatly increased muscle mass. In 2009, research with macaque monkeys demonstrated that regulating follistatin via gene therapy also resulted in muscle growth and increases in strength. This research paves the way for human clinical trials, which are hoped to begin in the summer of 2010 on Inclusion body myositis.

It’s going to get a whole lot more interesting around here in a few more years…

More on other species with the gene already identified including some individual humans here:

In 2004, a German boy was diagnosed with a mutation in both copies of the myostatin-producing gene, making him considerably stronger than his peers. His mother, a former sprinter, has a mutation in one copy of the gene.

An American boy born in 2005 (Liam Hoekstra) was diagnosed with a clinically similar condition but with a somewhat different cause: his body produces a normal level of functional myostatin, but because he is stronger and more muscular than most others his age, his doctor believes that a defect in his myostatin receptors prevents his muscle cells from responding normally when exposed to myostatin.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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16 Responses to Belgian Blue, Who Knew?

  1. Verity Jones says:

    oh LOL – from that Wikipedia link – a “bully whippet”!!!

  2. Level_Head says:

    SciAm did a cover story on this topic back in 2004, talking about therapies and enhancements “soon”:

    Here’s the NYT article on the one documented human example:

    He’d be about 11 years old now. Perhaps with callouses on his knuckles—from walking.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

  3. Level_Head says:

    A comment about the implications in a 2009 NPR article:

    Other scientists are also impressed by the results in monkeys.

    “It’s potentially very exciting,” says Se-Jin Lee of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered the myostatin gene.

    Lee says he’s optimistic that a treatment will emerge because so many different groups have now found ways to manipulate the myostatin pathway and produce muscle growth in a wide range of animals.

    “There are more and more signs that this will probably work,” he says.

    Guarding Against Misuse Of New Treatment

    And if it does, the muscle-building effects won’t be limited to sick people. So it’s no surprise that athletes and bodybuilders have been following the research closely.

    And it’s clear that some people want to use any new treatments to enhance athletic performance, Lee says.

    Drugs that block myostatin are pretty hard for would-be dopers to produce on their own, Lee says. But he adds that gene therapy is less of a challenge.

    “It’s a fairly easy thing for a small group to set up and produce,” he says. And once a gene is introduced into a muscle, he says, it’s there forever.

    The World Anti-Doping Agency is also concerned. It’s already funding work on tests to detect doping that affects the myostatin system.

    It looks pretty good to me.

    The expression “would-be dopers” amused me.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

  4. H.R says:

    I suppose the towing companies will be able to use less expensive plain flatbed trucks if this is widely available.
    You know what I mean; the guy shows up, picks up your car and tosses it on the bed of the truck. And if the truck breaks down, he just carries your car to the dealer.

    Seriously, I wonder what the negatives are; shortened life? Monster grocery bill? Thyroid, liver, kidney problems? What?

  5. Thanks, E. M., for the “heads-up.”

    Until gene manipulation produces some disaster, there will probably be little public concern or oversight of this form of science. – Oliver

  6. Kids playing to be Gods. ….dangerous business.

  7. PhilJourdan says:

    It sounds like a real winner – until I got to the part about cesarean section births. That really does not make them economically viable. It increases the stress on the cows and also the labor (no pun intended) costs to the rancher.

    I guess I will continue to take my steaks well marbled! ;)

  8. pascvaks says:

    Have to think that our big cousin Mr. Gorilla already has something like this in his primate genes. The problem I see as the biggest issue today is that all this genetic mumbo-jumbo is quite new. Being new, it is much as chemical drug and x-ray technology was back a hundred years ago and the “oversight” is quite thin or non-existant. Not saying we couldn’t be faster and better on some of the things that need preliminary approval, but in many ways we’re approving mysteries that are only being assessed via experimentation on large populations and allowing any MD from anywhere “U” to write Rx that some drug or genetic company has spent $100million in ad-time one the tellie to get John and Jane Q. to ask for the next time they get a headache. We’re moving faster toward the speed of light and gaining mass by the minute, and we’re doing it blind.

  9. P.G. Sharrow says:

    In the cattle business this is a well known curiosity of little practical value. The professional breeders on the other hand are in a different business where practical gives way to bragging rights. A richmans game. pg

  10. As an animal geneticist for 40 years I have been aware of ‘double-muscling’ in cattle. The major problem associated with ‘double-muscling is the seriously difficult calving for the females; virtually all calves are delivered by a caesarean operation – routinely.
    It has been discovered that the genetic mechanisms of the ‘condition’ are very complex – its not just a simple Mendelian gene. It depends on whether the gene has been inherited from the mother or from the father (genetic imprinting). Although not proven, I suspect the environment in the uterus may be an important factor.

  11. Level_Head says:

    @Sandy McClintock

    It depends on whether the gene has been inherited from the mother or from the father (genetic imprinting). Although not proven, I suspect the environment in the uterus may be an important factor.

    That matches my understanding. I was reminded of the situation with lion/tiger hybrids, where gigantic size is obtained if the lion is the father (ligers) versus smaller-than-usual size for a tiger father (tions).

    There, the mother’s womb apparently strongly influences (in effect, “does battle with”) the genetics of the fetus.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

  12. Tim Clark says:

    Is the mother’s influence attributed to extra-chromosomal DNA?

  13. wolfwalker says:

    OK, I won’t go in to HOW I got to this point, it’s one of those “Connections” things…

    I believe the technical term for this is “wikiwandering”. It’s a very well known phenomenon on the Web.

  14. E.M.Smith says:

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    It’s a curiosity and needs “C sections” as a genetic trait, but if it can be delivered via a pill?

    So I’ve got a herd of Angus and The Pill gives me, oh, 40% more beef? I’m not going to feed it?

    And how much makes it through SteaK Tartare? …

  15. E.M.Smith says:


    Oh, new media, new term… The “Connections” show explored this back in the VHS days…

    I started with the Autistic lady (there is a great movie about her…) and went down several ‘connections’ (as she was a cow oriented vet) and ended up here…

    but “wikiwandering”.. hmmmm… given the Wiki bias failings, I think I’ll stick with “connections moment” ;-)

  16. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Makes for a very large, dry and tough steak.

    I prefer black white face, a Herford, Angus cross. Moderate size, very thrifty, few problems. Very good choice or prime steaks, best over a manzaneta Barbe. ;-q pg

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