This is the first in a series of blog posts by Geoff Geddes. He is the communications coordinator for Alberta Pork in Edmonton and also works as a freelance writer/editor for a number of industries, with a particular interest in agriculture. He will be writing about a new Genome Alberta research project looking at why some pigs are better equipped genetically to fend off disease, and how we can select for disease resilience in future generations. In the coming months, we will have updates on this initiative and more details on the four main activities that comprise the project.
Space may be the final frontier, but some of the most exciting scientific work today involves the power of genomics. A prime example is the new Genome Alberta led project aimed at applying genomics – the study of genes and their functions – to improve disease resilience and sustainability in Canadian pork production.
“Up to now, we haven’t had the tools to define genetically what makes the immune system in certain pigs unique so that they either don’t get sick or get less sick than their pen-mates,” said Project Manager Irene Wenger.
As genomics allow us to boldly go where no researcher has gone before, those tools are now within our grasp.
Centres of activity
The project focuses on the genomics of swine health and involves 6 research centres: The Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Guelph and Laval, as well as Iowa State University and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). It builds on a 2010 large-scale applied research project (LSARP) led by Dr. Graham Plastow, which included the discovery of genomic regions associated with animal response to Porcine Circovirus 2 and PRRS during reproductive and early growth phases.
“Disease is one of the greatest challenges to pork production and one of the hardest to manage,” said Wenger. “It may also contribute to poor public perception of animal production in terms of animal welfare, food safety and antimicrobial resistance. Genomics offers new opportunities to reduce these costs and improve the market image of pork.”
How will it do that? Researchers will look at genetic improvement and nutritional management strategies to reduce pig deaths and morbidity.
Although genomics is a complex subject, Wenger said the premise of the project is fairly simple.
“If you expose a group of pigs to a mixture of diseases, certain pigs will get sick. Others will fight the disease thanks to something in their immune systems that’s genetic. Those are the disease-resilient pigs and we want to understand genetically what enables them to withstand the impact of disease.”
While that’s a worthy goal, the project goes a step further by addressing one of the hottest issues in livestock production today: Antimicrobial resistance.
“The aim is to boost production efficiency without the use of antimicrobials,” said Wenger. “If we can identify pigs that are the most resilient to disease (a combination of disease resistance and tolerance), we can select for those particular pigs, and producers down the line will benefit from these selections.”
Researching far and wide
It’s no small feat, which is why the project has some big-name leaders including Dr. Michael Dyck (University of Alberta), Dr. John Harding (University of Saskatchewan) and Dr. Bob Kemp (PigGen Canada Inc.)
Wenger herself brings a background in pork production and a PhD in Public Health Sciences, along with 15 years of experience managing complex multi-stakeholder research projects.
“My career has taken me in many directions, but I’m glad to be back in the pork industry and working with top-notch researchers.”
All told, the project involves four major areas of study: Animal models, host-microbial interactions, genomic analysis and socio-economic analysis.
It’s a lot of ground to cover. Fortunately, the project has a number of funding partners from Canada, the U.S. and overseas: Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie (Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and Food), PigGen Canada Inc., Applied Livestock Genomics Program2 (ALGP2), Alberta Livestock & Meat Agency (ALMA), Swine Improvement Pork2 (SIP2), Saskatchewan ADF, INRA, Alltech Inc., the National Pork Board and BBSRC (UK) Functional Annotation of Animal Genomics (FAANG).
Outcomes that boost your income
It’s all very interesting, but if you’re like most people, you may be pondering that deep, philosophical question that research often spawns: “What’s in it for me”?
“This research will improve the end-user’s ability to select, feed and use microbial management tools for the optimal immune response of pigs,” said Mike Dyck, the Project Leader for this Large Scale Applied Research Project. “The project can help Canadian producers meet rising global pork demands by improving health and productivity while reducing the use of antimicrobials in pork production.”
It may not be “seeking out new life and new civilizations”. But if all goes as planned, the swine health project could lead to greater health for pigs and the pork industry as a whole. Let’s see Captain Kirk do that.