I have thought of a highly advanced civilization which species are comparably weak but much more intelligent and that is extremely advanced in genetic engineering that they replaced all of their domesticated cattle for one single genetically engineered species that is designed for being cattle.

I think the species attributes would be that they are unintelligent and docile, their only instinct besides basic needs is to give sustenance to their offspring by something similar to milk. Similar to kangaroos, they have two separate types, one for their offspring and one for the alien civilization. The milk for the alien civilization is filled with omega 3 fatty acids or hormones like dopamine which in return increases intelligence of the aliens (the alien biology is very similar to earth as well as their planet), which they naturally produced or were fed by the farmers. They would have a high fertility rate and their body would be designed to have less muscle and more nutritious fats. Also they were designed to be able to feed on any flour due to their adaptable metabolism and are also temperature tolerant. They were also designed to not be carriers of diseases like how cattle are on Earth. I can keep going but you get the picture.

Is this creature plausible? And if not what can you add to improve it?

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    $\begingroup$ The first problem I see here is the monoculture: one disease that affects these cattle and boom the aliens have no more beef, forever. Something similar happened with bananas, look up the Gros Michel culture and Panama Disease. Other than that, hard to critique because if the aliens are so advanced they can semi-plausibly do things than humans see as impossible. $\endgroup$
    – Sol
    Aug 24, 2020 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ Why don't your aliens skip the animals and culture meat and dairy if they are so advanced? People are trying to do pretty much that (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultured_meat ). Then it's just a factory churning out identical product. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 24, 2020 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ "Is this creature plausible" conparing modernday pigs to the wild boar or cattle cows to wild cows: yes $\endgroup$
    – Nathan
    Aug 24, 2020 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ Chickens and similar birds (compared to their wild cousins) are an even greater example, designed over the course of many generations of selective breeding to produce more meat at the expense of anti-predation adaptations that, obviously, aren't needed in a closed farm environment. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Aug 24, 2020 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ Sooo they made a vegetable? "unintelligent and docile they’re only instincts besides basic needs is to give sustenance to their offsprings". As with vegans on earth. Why eat meat when you can cut out the middle man (cow, pig, lamb) and just go straight for the soya protein. $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2020 at 7:44

6 Answers 6


It is a brutal genetic change of the impacted life form.

You could engineer it, for sure. Likewise you can engineer people to be happy with their work.

I'd say, if your aliens do the genetic engineering of cattle, they should engineer them right to the end: They would have a steak growing in a tank; Milk coming out of the organ, but without the animal around the organ. And so on.

That milk-organ could be produced in a hundred variants for different liquids.

It's more energy-efficient than anorganic technique, more matter-efficient and living-space-efficient than raising complete animals, less time consuming and morally better. We humans have a pretty low morale standard - I guess any spacefaring alien would have to develop far enough to not be cruel to everybody. Otherwise those spaceships are perfect weapons for mutual destruction.

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    $\begingroup$ Why bother with an organ? A suitably engineered series of yeasts could probably do the job... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 24, 2020 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ It provides additional convenience functions: first cleaning, then gathering of the product in a little storage space, ready to be sucked out by the industry in a certain tact...Yes, I guess you are right. For fats and oils and the like yeast might even be easier to use. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Aug 24, 2020 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Anderas, the yeast or mold could be attached to a surface or lattice that is vertical or otherwise hanging, so the liquid produced could just run off, rather than needing an active mechanism to harvest it. $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2020 at 16:14

Objectively speaking the ideal "cattle" is the smallest possible (and thereby the most simple) organism that yields the desired product. A highly advanced civilization with genetic engineering would prefer bacteria, algae, fungi or insects as their main food source.

The reason for that is:

  • You need less space to grow a ton of bacteria or algae in a tank than to grow a ton of cow.
  • The cow is intelligent enough to be uncomfortable in certain environments, leading to less milk or worse meat quality. It needs space to move, fresh air of certain temperature, water and sunlight to stay healthy and lots of good quality plant-based food to grow. Bacteria or algae have similar needs, but are much more forgiving, which makes it easier to grow them.
  • Big animals need a long time to grow and consume a lot of food in the process until they can be slaughtered. The smaller the animal is, the shorter this growing period becomes and the less food is wasted for growing alone.
  • As long as your food is processed and composed of single cell organisms, there are no waste parts. A cow offers nice, big muscles to cut steaks from, but there are leftovers like skin, bones, tendons and organs no-one wants to eat. The less waste a single organism produces , the less food is wated on growing these parts.

Here on earth there are already many products (especially, it seems, in the food indstry), that are produced by bacteria, like aromas and thickeners. In traditional food production and preservation processes like cheese making and brewing, bacteria and fungi help transform some of the ingredients, which makes the end product more nutritional than the ingredients it started with.

With superior knowledge in genetic engineering it shouldn't be too hard to engineer bacteria that produce a milk-like substance. With the proper processing they could probably press and condense a tank full of bacteria into a juicy steak, ready for consumption in a few days and guaranteed to be free of any cattle parasites or antibiotics. Ideally they would feed those bacteria with raw sewage and very little other resources and engineer the bacteria to process the waste into new nutrients.

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    $\begingroup$ If skin is "left over", you're doing it wrong. Bones don't necessarily have to be left over, either. Historically, people were actually quite good at utilizing the entire animal; "wastage" is more of a modern thing, and even then, I bet there's a lot less of it than you seem to think. (Hint: a lot of it becomes food for other animals.) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Aug 24, 2020 at 16:52

If you engineer beasts to be cattle, you get...


That's how we have cattle: they are an engineered species, poorly adapted to life in the wild, but well adapted to life on a farm.

Every transformation available to 21st century genetic engineers was available to neolithic farmers, even lateral gene transfer. However, having no idea how it worked and no way to direct these processes, all they could do was wait for a useful modification and select it. So, what we now can do in a few years took hundreds of years.


I'm afraid your idea of genetic engineering is incorrect, but in a way that is pretty standard.


Genetic engineering is any modification to the genome/DNA of an organism to give that organism a desired effect.

Genetic engineering is the process of using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to alter the genetic makeup of an organism.



That definition doesn't mean it's always done in a lab. Humans have been practicing "genetic engineering" for millennia by cross-breeding different species of the same type of organism. Cross-breeding isn't a direct modification of DNA, but it's still modifying DNA in a way that is considered best for humans. For example, the wheat we eat is nothing like the wheat the original farmers grew.

However, this wheat was very different to the crops that fill our fields today – the ears would tower over our modern dwarf varieties, commonly reaching 160 centimetres tall, and with great genetic diversity. These ‘landrace’ varieties were created by generations of natural selection and farmers saving diverse seed year after year.


This happens with dogs, cats, and all kinds of other animals.

A dog breed is a particular strain or dog type that was purposefully bred by humans to perform specific tasks, such as herding, hunting, and guarding.


This happened with cattle as well. So really, the cattle we have today is already genetically modified.

Holstein cows originated in the Netherlands approximately 2,000 years ago. Two breeds of cattle, black animals from the Batavians (present-day Germany) and white animals from the Friesians (present-day Holland), were crossed to create a new breed of cattle. This crossbreeding led to a high milk-producing animal that was able to do so on limited feed resources.


"... they replaced all of their domesticated cattle for one single genetically engineered species that is designed for being cattle."

Really, that sentence doesn't make sense. Today's cattle are already "genetically engineered" for being cattle.


The misconception you and so many other people have is that genetic engineering means you start with nothing and create something completely new, but that's rarely the case. Most of the time it's just a minor modification of an existing organism, even in the lab.

The Plasmid Method -
This method is the most commonly used method in genetic engineering. This method uses small circular pieces of a DNA molecule called plasmids. This method is mainly used for altering microorganisms such as bacteria.
The Vector Method -
The vector method uses techniques similar to the plasmid method. This method uses vectors, which are small carrier molecules, which are normally viruses. Viruses are made of a protein capsule and have their DNA inside, they attach onto a cell then inserts its DNA or RNA into the host cell, then it detaches itself. The DNA, now inside the host cell, will start replicating itself by using the genetic information of the host cell, which means the gene that was inserted will now be part of the host cell.
The Biolistic Method -
The biolistic method is also called the gene gun method, and like its nickname this method uses a gun. This method is mainly used for the engineering of the plants, although the science is evolving to do animals as well.


In a way, genetic engineering scientists are lazy. They want to start out with something that's as close to their desired goals as possible and change as little as possible. But in every other way, these scientists are very much not lazy. They are actually more concerned about dangerous modifications than the "average Joe". They don't want to kill anyone, cause allergic reactions, have the new breed "take over the world", and all the other horror stories you hear in sci-fi and politics. Not only is this a horrible outcome, but anything like it would likely also cause them to lose their jobs, as well as extremists against genetic engineering trying to end it completely.

And really, they want to change as little as possible so they have more control of the process and have less probability of a bad outcome.

But what you might be thinking about is using the best parts of multiple organisms to create a "super cow". This would be cattle that can do everything current cattle do, but better. Cut off a leg and it grows back. Hook up a milking machine for a constant stream of milk. Daily or weekly calving. Fewer "cow farts". And do it all on less food and water.

There's quite a few problems with all that, and the most significant are probably not even technical. It's a problem of human perception. There's already quite a lot of push back against GMO foods (and this and many more). There's also still a lot of education needed for a large amount of people to even understand what genetic modification really is, how much it's tested, and all the other things that go with it. Questions like yours is one indicator of that need. I'm sure I've made mistakes in this answer, which also goes to show that more education is needed.

When asked which of three positions best fits their viewpoints, about half of Americans (48%) say the health effects of GM [genetically modified] foods are no different than other foods, 39% say GM foods are worse for one’s health and one-in-ten (10%) say such foods are better for one’s health.



While other answers already do a good job of suggesting better alternatives for a species that is advanced at genetic engineering, they do not account for cultural, philosophical, or even religious constraints that might give your species a good reason to CHOOSE to breed whole animals as you have suggested, even if it is less efficient than organs in a bottle or microbial food products.

Cultural: Modern man does not need to eat meat. With a well balanced diet including nut and bean products you can remain healthy, cut costs, and eliminate the cruelty of the meat processing industry, yet... most of us still eat meat. We know we don't need to, but there is a general taboo against "fake" foods. With the right preparation, tofu, veggie patties, and nut milks can taste so close to the originals that most people will consume them without even noticing the difference only to reject them once they find out it's not real meat. So, your aliens may have a strong bias against fake meat/dairy products.

Philosophical: Organisms are so complex that there will always be the assumption of "you don't know what you don't know". This is to say that no matter how much we know about what things our bodies need, we will never be certain that we know all of the things our bodies need. When you rely on food substitutes, you never know what you are leaving out or accidently overloading on in the recipe. You could come up with a synthetic food that will keep you alive and healthy for 30 years only to slowly build some unknown carenogen in your system. For this reason people may feel a lot more comfortable eating the meat of something that is derived from a natural food source than something completely engineered.

Religious: Many religions include dietary requirements/restrictions. This creates a strong traditional attachment to specific foods which people may feel morally obligated to consume or avoid. There is also the fuzzy line in genetic engineering of "man playing god" which often creates strong opposition between obvious genetic engineering and religious objection. If it looks like a cow and it sounds like a cow, most religious fanatics will not care or understand that is has 143 artificial genetic sequences sewn into its DNA. But to see a slab of ribs growing in a vat looks like man challenging their God's/gods' creation.

Under these constraints, it is likely that the market demand for your artificial animals will be high enough to at very least exist alongside other solutions in other answers. That said, there is one aspect of your design that I would change:

... one single genetically engineered species ...

This is bad on a few levels. The most obvious is the risk of a plague wiping out your super cattle. Even if you design them to be immune to all known diseases when you create them, pathogens evolve very quickly and are always looking for new ways to spread. A single mutant pathogen could exploit a weakness in your cattle's immune systems killing billions of them in a single season leading to a massive famine.

Also, when given a choice, animals will generally consume the highest variety of foods that their digestive systems are designed for. This is an instinctual behavior designed to self regulate our own health. If your aliens are designed to eat a lot of types of meat, then the demand for a monoculture meat will be low.

Instead consider that your species might have even more diversity of livestock than we do. Picture the alcohol aisle at the grocery store (or liquor store in more restrictive places). They don't just sell one "best beer", they sell dozens of varieties of beer, rum, whiskey, vodka, wine, etc... all designed to appeal to different pallets and budgets. The mark of an advanced civilization is not it's ability to provide sustenance, but to provide choices. I remember when you used to be you go to a grocery store and you would buy ground beef... that's it, just ground beef. Now there is Ground Beef, Ground Angus, Ground Bison, Ground Buffalo, Ground Alligator, and Ground Turkey. Many coming with sub choices like Percent of fat content, grass fed, corn fed, Kosher, Free Range, etc. It may be that all 300 meat options your aliens have to choose from are all hyper engineered animals, but as urban populations grow, you create more and more room for niche markets and agricultural diversity, not less.

Otkin makes a good point in the comments that between 1900 and the 1980s there was a massive loss in agricultural biodiversity, but this does not predict the future of GMOs very well. Since the mid 80s, the diversity of engineered products and reintroduction of niche products has increased as the technologies behind them become more available. Right now, GMOs are still mostly the things of large corporations, but as technology advances, affordable DIY GMO kits could create a boom in GMO diversity the same way DYI brewing kits did for alcohol diversity. Family farms making unique livestock blends could then appeal to niche markets that monoculture corporations would not be able to fill.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure that more choices is the same as more variety. Indeed, products are branded differently and target different consumers, but it is mostly packaging. If anything, technological advancement led to a reduction in a variety. Moreover, in the last century, the industrialisation of food production and economies of scale reduced diversity even more. For example, from 1903 to 1983 the US lost over 90% of variety in seeds (fastcompany.com/1669753/…). Imported food does not truly compensate for this lack of diversity. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 24, 2020 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin This answer was not meant to reflect what would happen at the introduction of mass produced GMOs but what I believe would happen much later for a civilization as advanced as the OP describes. Answer updated to clarify this. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 24, 2020 at 20:59

Who says it has to be unintelligent?

Everybody else has pointed out the pros and cons of making yourself GMO cattle, so I'll focus on the intelligence part.

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, there is actually an alien species that had your problem - they were getting too many complaints from space-Greenpeace and other animal rights organizations. As a result, they used genetic engineering to build themselves an intelligent meat animal from scratch. Now, this intelligence was the key factor - it made it so that the space-cows (which had been bred to want to die) could express, clearly and in no uncertain terms, their desire to be eaten. The net effect was that they rid themselves of Greenpeace, only to be swarmed by Furries.

The point is, you don't need to limit yourself to "dumb brutes"; having your space-cows be intelligent offers several advantages (e.g. easier medical diagnostics), and also has the side benefit of making for an interesting sub-plot if you want to go that route.


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