• A flock of sheep roam in Beijing, China.

A flock of sheep roam in Beijing, China. (Photo : Getty Images)

Consumers may soon have more natural colors to choose from in natural wool products as Chinese scientists successfully used gene editing to change the coat colors of sheep.

Researchers at the Xinjiang Academy of Zootechnical Science in Urumqi have bred five sheep with different colors using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, the state-owned Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday.

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Two of the sheep grow wool with black and white coloration similar to cows, another two have black and white spots like spotty dogs, while the other is brown and white, the report said.

"The lambs, born in March, have become our lovely pets," said Liu Mingjun, head of the research team.

Liu said this is the first time that scientists have altered the coat colors of large animals using CRISPR-Cas9. Previous experiments on alteration had been limited to mice.

With CRISPR-Cas9, it is now possible to purchase more wool products of various colors without the need for dyes, while pet owners can now order pets with customized fur coloring, he added.

Liu's team selected ASIP, a key gene affecting the color of sheep fleece, to edit for the desired colors, according to Xinhua.

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, was selected as the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year by the U.S. journal Science Magazine due to its ability to act as "molecular scissors" capable of selectively trimming away unwanted genome parts and replacing them with new stretches of DNA.

Cas9 is a specific kind of CRISPR-associated protein, with which genetic patterns can be altered through genome modification.

"The application to large animals indicates more strains of animals, not limited to livestock, will be developed via the approach, with different patterns not limited to coat colors," Liu said.

"Compared with traditional gene mutation approaches in which researchers take decades to breed a new strain, gene editing is much more effective," he added.

His team previously designed 38 sheep in 2015 that outperformed ordinary ones in muscle and wool growth. The sheep will be further studied for genetic stability this fall.