Remember Dolly the sheep? She was cloned from a single cell from a sheep’s udder and made in a test tube in Scotland back in 1996. Oh, there was a righteous worldwide uproar at the time. There were lots of people afraid a cloned animal would turn out to be some sort of a monster, or that some mad scientist somewhere would soon be cloning soul-less humans.
From those, um, lively discussions, came a slew of new ethics rules and regulations scattered about in several countries. The United Nations banned any kind of human cloning in 2005. Things died down after that, and after Dolly died in 2003, people began to forget about her and cloning in general.
However, Dolly’s story didn’t end with her death. She lives on in her heirs.
Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Scientists said it took nearly 300 tries to copy the genetics of a sheep and produce the clone, Dolly. That was back before we have all the sophisticated genetic tools we have today. Back then, scientists used tools commonly used by in vitro fertilization clinics to create “a normal, healthy genetic marvel” – a perfect clone.
Here’s a short ABC News story to bring you up-to-date or refresh your memory on how Dolly came to be.
Dolly died from a progressive lung disease. The cause of that illness, be it something caught from other sheep Dolly lived with or something springing from her “already old cells,” has never been determined. Nonetheless, she was put down to stop her suffering from an incurable disease.
Surviving her were her four lambs, conceived and birthed in the normal way. Yes, it turns out, clones can mate and have kids, uh, lambs. Consider the sterile clone myth busted forever.
Cell sisters, the clones must go on
But there were also additional survivors: four clones made from the same cell line as Dolly’s. Yes, four sister clones named Daisy, Diana, Debbie and Denise. They are elderly now, in sheep years, and doing just fine. Perhaps that is partly due to their largely escaping the public spotlight and the strains of controversy. Well, at least until now.
Remember Dolly the sheep? She was cloned from a single cell from a sheep’s udder and made in a test tube in Scotland back in 1996. Oh, there was a righteous worldwide uproar at the time. There were lots of people afraid a cloned animal would turn out to be some sort of a monster, or that some mad scientist somewhere would soon be cloning soul-less humans.
From those, um, lively discussions, came a slew of new ethics rules and regulations scattered about in several countries. The United Nations banned any kind of human cloning in 2005. Things died down after that, and after Dolly died in 2003, people began to forget about her and cloning in general.
However, Dolly’s story didn’t end with her death. She lives on in her heirs.
Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Scientists said it took nearly 300 tries to copy the genetics of a sheep and produce the clone, Dolly. That was back before we have all the sophisticated genetic tools we have today. Back then, scientists used tools commonly used by in vitro fertilization clinics to create “a normal, healthy genetic marvel” – a perfect clone.
Here’s a short ABC News story to bring you up-to-date or refresh your memory on how Dolly came to be.
Dolly died from a progressive lung disease. The cause of that illness, be it something caught from other sheep Dolly lived with or something springing from her “already old cells,” has never been determined. Nonetheless, she was put down to stop her suffering from an incurable disease.
Surviving her were her four lambs, conceived and birthed in the normal way. Yes, it turns out, clones can mate and have kids, uh, lambs. Consider the sterile clone myth busted forever.
Cell sisters, the clones must go on
But there were also additional survivors: four clones made from the same cell line as Dolly’s. Yes, four sister clones named Daisy, Diana, Debbie and Denise. They are elderly now, in sheep years, and doing just fine. Perhaps that is partly due to their largely escaping the public spotlight and the strains of controversy. Well, at least until now.
Have you ever taken great pains to avoid a cold, only to be the target of a co-worker’s germs? Imagine how a pig feels. Not only are they vulnerable to a number of diseases, but their buddies won’t even cover their mouths when they sneeze. That’s a simplistic description of a complex challenge, one that Genome Alberta researchers are currently taking on.
In the ongoing public debate over the safety of genetically-modified foods, including livestock and the foods they feed upon, few stop to think how genetically-modified foods might actually save humans. Oh sure, plenty of people, including just about all farmers, think about how genetically-modified organisms can better withstand a lot of things ranging from drought to disease and thereby save humans from widespread famine and tainted foods. But, as it turns out, that’s only part of the story.
Granted, saving us from widespread famine is in itself a solid reason for pursuing genetic modifications of organisms in our food chain.
After all, avoiding famine and disease is a big part of the reasoning behind other farming efforts such as widespread antibiotic use in livestock. Keeping more animals healthy and alive means more meat for more tables…unfortunately those tables got over-turned when germs decided to do a little self-gene-manipulation.
The silent war – germs that can modify their genes in real-time
Far too few people realize that all organisms are, and always have been, in the genetic modification game. At the moment, the biggest threat from naturally occurring gene modifications comes from bacteria that are evolving in order to conquer environmental threats – namely antibiotics. Viruses, micro-sized fungi and parasites are evolving too and becoming increasingly treatment resistant as well.
Some people blame the ag industry for the rise of antibiotic-resistant infectious agents. But it is the widespread overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals – as well as too few people actually finishing their antibiotics – that sped up the evolution of antibiotic-resistant nasties.
Making matters worse is the scary fact that germ evolution is not contained to reproduction and changes made over generations. Not that that is any less scary considering very little time elapses between germ generations.
But scarier still are the many ways germs have to transfer and modify their genes on the fly, so to speak. And here some of you thought human scientists doing gene modifications over the course of many years of research was a little scary. Nope, we have nothing on Mother Nature.
To understand better how regular germs do their own genetic manipulations to become supergerms, check out this short, animated Ted Ed video.
As evidenced by an Austrian study on the nature of navel fluff, not all research has practical application. Fortunately, the team behind a new Genome Alberta project has little use for navel gazing. In their quest to use genomics for developing more accurate breeding values for key traits of commercial cattle, researchers have both eyes keenly trained on the bottom line.
To the layperson, spectroscopy sounds like an operation that leaves you walking funny. But in reality, the potential of this technology and the data it produces to assist in cutting edge research is no laughing matter. And for Genome Alberta researchers applying genomics to build a better dairy cow, it’s a tool that’s well worth tapping.
The European Commission appears to be stalling on making a decision on whether gene-edited organisms are the same as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and thus should be regulated the same or differently. Meanwhile, some EU breeders are urging the Commission to follow Canada’s lead on regulating both.
Genetically-modified vs genetically-edited
Technically the two are very different. GMOs have a gene added from another organism to produce a new trait. Gene-edited organisms have no genes added from another organism; instead, existing genes are edited to change, repair or remove a defective or unwanted gene.
For a quick overview of how scientists are using gene-editing on organisms, check out this short video.
You can easily see the many advantages in gene-editing ranging from ending animal suffering, as is the case in breeding hornless cattle rather than subjecting animals to horn removal, to eradicating malaria by making mosquitoes unable to carry the parasite and thus saving 1000 people a day from dying from that disease.
Certain famine and disease vs unknown futures
The European Commission has missed two deadlines on making the decision as to whether the two will be classed together. If it comes to that conclusion, gene-edited animals and plants would be as effectively curbed on EU farms as GMOs are now.
"If Europe does that, I think they will probably send themselves into the stone age of agricultural biotechnology," said Cellectis CEO Andre Choulika in a Reuters report.
And that is likely true. Further, the food chain is entering an age of increased vulnerabilities ranging from new external threats coming from climate change, to the rise of antibiotic-resistant and antibiotic-immune viruses and bacteria.
If Europe fails to use new methods to address these pressing threats, widespread famine may soon follow.
However, it is important to understand the risks in gene-editing too.
As a kid that grew up among the seemingly endless fields of cash crops in southwestern Ontario, I spent a good amount of time wandering between rows of corn, usually enroute to a favourite pear tree smack in the middle of the field adjacent to my house. For some reason, I had an irrational fear of the occasional mutant ear of corn I’d encounter, usually infested with a fungus that caused the kernels to swell into grotesque shapes that oozed blue-black spores.
Minus the fungus, the odd, overly large or irregularly shaped ear was still enough to steer me away from those succulent pears. In my mind, an ear of corn was meant to be ordered in shape, arrangement, and size. The regular function of stem cells in the plant’s meristem (growing tip) also adheres to the same sense of order, resulting in ears that are relatively uniform in size, shape and kernel yield.
But this may no longer be the desired outcome. Biologists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have identified a new genetic pathway responsible for controlling the ear size of corn, and have developed a technique to manipulate it, making it possible to increase the yield of a single plant by as much as 50%. Such an increase across entire fields could have an immense impact on current and future demands for food, particularly in light of global farmland loss and climate change, as was noted by several media outlets (see examples here and here).
With humans, illness may just keep us home from work for a day or two (or three if we still have sick time to use). For pigs on the other hand, disease is often debilitating or fatal, and too much disease can affect the producer’s bottom line. That reality is at the heart of a new Genome Alberta-led research project aimed at boosting disease resilience in pigs through the cutting edge use of genomics.
Farmers are reducing herd sizes because raising sheep isn’t as profitable as it once was. But now sheep farmers are using actual genetically-based animal needs in their calculations to lower costs and thus raise their profits. It’s common to see livestock selected for their genetics to improve animal hardiness or carcass outputs. But it’s interesting to see sheep farmers flip that model by reducing their hard costs in raising sheep by matching each animal’s genetic requirements in food rations and other needs.
While many people count sheep to help them fall asleep, farm industry watchers do it to check the overall farm population. In many places, the counting goes quicker these days because there are fewer and fewer sheep. According to Statistics Canada’s Livestock Survey “the number of sheep fell 1.9% to 828,600 head as farmers reduced herds.”
The number of sheep is falling in the U.S. too. Although, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture inventory, “Market sheep and lambs on January 1, 2016 totaled 1.36 million head, up 1 percent from January 1, 2015,” that’s about half of the number from the 1990s.
And the sheep count is similarly falling around the world. The reason? “Competition from less expensive imported meat, land use decisions that turn sheep pastures into cropland or grazing for cattle, and labor shortages,” according to an article in The Tri-State Neighbor. The U.S. also stopped its incentive program for sheep farmers years ago, as have other governments.
Add to that consumer demands for a specific taste – no fat and not too strong a flavor – and the profit sweet-spot turns to bitter saccharin in a hurry. Just a few pounds over the perfect weight makes the meat fattier and taste much stronger. Hitting a perfect weight range for each animal is essential.
As that renowned philosopher Kermit the Frog once said: “It’s not easy being green”. It’s even harder with Miss Piggy breathing down your neck, but for a real challenge, try greening the planet with genomics one cow burp at a time. A new Genome Alberta project is doing just that.
Armed with a catchy title – “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle” – and a top-notch research team, the project uses genomics to develop more accurate breeding values for key traits of commercial cattle.
In the final scenes of JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, a besieged Boromir makes a desperate call for help by blowing on the Horn of Gondor, a sound that was said to have echoed over 100 miles to his home city of Minas Tirith. Too late, the horn is “cloven in two” and thus becomes emblematic of the fall of Gondor itself.
If current projects in Europe have anything to say about it, we may soon be able to (re)make this fabled horn from an animal similar to the aurochs that inspired Tolkien’s imagination.
For humans, burps are like convicts: We only worry about them when they escape. In dairy cattle, though, burps are the focus of some cutting edge research, and for good reason. A prime example is the new Genome Alberta research project “Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics”. It puts dairy cattle burps squarely in the spotlight, as they produce the methane that poses a great risk to the environment.
For most human moms, pregnancy means morning sickness, weight gain and irrational cravings for pickles. But with pregnant pigs, the real pickle is that diseases like PRRSV (Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Syndrome Virus) can be passed to the fetus, sometimes with fatal results. Addressing that problem is a key focus of a new Genome Alberta research project, which seeks to apply genomics to improve disease resilience and reduce pig deaths and morbidity.
If that “where’s the beef?” lady Clara Peller was alive today, and held a PhD in Animal Genetics and Biochemistry, she might ask a different question: “How can we develop and apply more accurate genomically-enhanced breeding values for traits of importance to the commercial cattle industry?”
Researchers have made strong headway in defending pigs against the deadly African Swine Fever (ASF). Less than one third of pigs that catch the disease survive and it is highly contagious. The researchers have discovered that gene-editing can convert domestic pigs’ RELA gene into the warthogs’ version thereby, theoretically at least, rendering domestic pigs resistant to the disease.
No, the domestic pigs do not take on warthog characteristics. Domestic pigs and warthogs both already have the gene, just slightly different versions of it.
In its current state, the domestic pigs’ gene causes the pig’s immune system to overreact to ASF with fatal results. The researchers believe the variation in the warthogs’ gene – known as an allele -- suppresses that immune reaction. The change the researchers made to the domestic pigs’ gene is very minute and involves modifying only five letters of the genetic code.
This is the first time scientists have successfully swapped alleles in an animal’s genetic code using gene editing. Interestingly, the researchers say that this same, exact genetic switch to the warthogs’ allele in domestic pigs “could have occurred spontaneously in nature.”
This is no weird, glow-in-the-dark science experiment on pigs, in other words. It’s a logical genetic evolution that nature would likely have done over time. Unfortunately, farmers don’t have the luxury of time.
The disease shows no symptoms. Farmers just suddenly find a lot of dead pigs. That’s when they know to suspect this disease, but by then, it’s far too late to do anything for the poor pigs.
Hence a good bit of effort goes into prevention but often that proves to be too little, too late too. Check out this ASF awareness video to see the ridiculously intense measures farmers have to go to in trying to prevent their pigs being exposed to this deadly virus.
As plausible concepts go, “getting more for less” is right up there with the chocolate diet: Too good to be true. But a notable exception is the Genome Alberta research project “Increasing feed efficiency and reducing methane emissions through genomics”.
Unlike the tick study, the lungworm genome research does not come with a nicely packaged prototype vaccine, but it does add important basic understanding of the lungworm’s biology that the authors hope will allow for improved drug testing in the near future.
The microscopic lungworm may have a perfect – if rather repulsive – life cycle. Its ability to travel different systems in different organisms reads like a C.V. of language mastery. Respiratory system? Check. Lymphatic system? Check. Circulatory and digestive systems? Check, check. And the fungal reproductive system? Yes, check that one too.
Just when you thought you have seen everything in the way of genetic manipulation of farm plants and animals, science takes another giant leap forward. The latest jump is in using living cells and organisms as biosensors that can detect any number of things but are most often used to detect environmental threats and toxins. This research is leading to the development of entire organisms that can glow or change colors to communicate threatening conditions to farmers and consumers alike. They can also lead to self-doctoring animals that can sense disease and self-treat it too.
This involves much more work than simply making changes to DNA. This work entails using living cells as computing devices. It is the new frontier and is frequently referred to as biohacking as it mimics writing computer code to produce a new computing function.
Bill Gates once told Wired magazine that if he were just starting out now, he would become a biohacker rather than a computer hacker because biohacking is the future of computing. If you want to learn more about biohacking, you might want to read my earlier posts on the topic, starting with this one.
But back to today’s enormous breakthrough in the development of biosensors.
A team of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School (HMS) led by George Church, Ph.D., successfully engineered Arabidopsis plants to act as multicellular botanical biosensors. Yeah, that’s a mouthful of big words. Put more simply, this common flowering plant can now recognize the presence of the drug digoxin and emit light as a signal. In other words, it glows when it senses as little as a single molecule of that drug.
It’s not that the researchers are desperately seeking stashes of the drug in fields or flower beds. Dioxin is simply the drug they chose for the experiment. The plants can be engineered to detect a lot of different things of more importance to farmers such as the early presence of pests that can annihilate an entire crop.
We have good reason to pay attention to the tiny, flightless, blood-sucking tick. Measuring as small as 1-2mm in their early life stage, they are virtually unnoticeable in fur, hair, or at the tip of grass leaves where they often gather to ambush an animal, bird or human host. Like it’s winged cousin, the mosquito, ticks are vectors of blood-borne disease – as many as 60 different illnesses are transmitted by ticks, some of which are common to both humans and livestock.
So severe are its impacts on livestock that this unassuming insect was the target of a county-wide eradication of one of their species, the southern cattle tick (Rhipicephalus [Boophilus] microplus), in the United States in the mid 1900s. Even though its occurrence in the US remains extremely low – it’s hard to control an insect that can hurdle across the Rio Grande (the US-Mexico border) on the back of a deer after all – it continues to transmit diseases to cattle in tropical and subtropical regions that cost billions upon billions each year.
The ongoing goal in farming has been to produce animals capable of resisting diseases that currently threaten the human food supply. That goal is spurred by the increase in disease events and animal vulnerability associated with climate change. So it is that news of the world’s first successful superpigs has met with cheers from swine producers worldwide. The pigs are genetically modified to be resistant to the incurable and fatal blue-ear disease.
Blue-ear disease is formally known as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). The virus attacks the pig’s immune system, presents largely as a respiratory infection, and is usually fatal. There is no cure.
“PRRS is the most economically significant disease to affect US swine production since the eradication of classical swine fever (CSF),” according to an Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine document. “Although reported initially in only a few countries in the late 1980s, PRRS now occurs worldwide in most major swine-raising countries.”
It’s not a disease farmers take lightly, in other words. But it’s one they can do little about.
“There is no specific treatment for PRRS. Broad-spectrum antibiotics may be useful in controlling secondary infections. Anti-inflammatory products (e.g. aspirin) are commonly administered during acute disease,” according to the Iowa State document.
So it’s no small thing that researchers have produced the world’s first genetically modified pigs that are highly resistant to the ailment.
Researchers at Genus, a British animal genetics company, worked with U.S. scientists at the University of Missouri to do the complex gene editing needed to eradicate the protein that enables PRRS to spread inside the pig’s body.
"Once inside the pigs, PRRS needs some help to spread; it gets that help from a protein called CD163," Randall Prather, professor of animal sciences in the university's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, explained in a news release.
"We were able to breed a litter of pigs that do not produce this protein, and as a result, the virus doesn't spread. When we exposed the pigs to PRRS, they did not get sick and continued to gain weight normally."
It’s important to pause a moment and reflect on the importance of what was done here. These scientists effectively immunized the pigs but they did not otherwise alter the pigs’ nature or biological structure. That is an important distinction that many critics of GMO foods do not seem to grasp.
While controversy continues in the Western world over genetically modified livestock in the food chain, China – with the help of a South Korean research institution-- is upping the ante on producing more high-quality meat at cheaper prices through a mass cloning program.
China is currently billing the new facility as the “world’s largest cloning factory,” not as the “only” or first such factory as others already do exist. Anyway, the factory is expected to start producing next year with the first batch of product being cloned cattle.
“The first animal to come down the line will be Japanese cows, in an attempt to lower the price of high-quality beef in the Chinese market, Dr. Xu Xiaochun, chairman and CEO of Boyalife, told Chinese media, according to a report in Quartz. “[We are] now promoting cloned cows and cloned horses to improve China’s modern animal husbandry industry,” Xu said.
Besides the cloning production line, which presumably will expand to clone pigs, sheep and other livestock, the facility in the city of Tianjin will include a cloned animal center, a gene bank, and a science and education exhibition hall.
Here’s a video report on the new factory and related history of animal cloning.
Meanwhile, the Western world remains wary of cloning food animals. The preference in the West is to stave off future starvation by breeding more disease and climate resistant animals and by banking both genes and seeds to ensure enough biodiversity to further protect food stock.
You can see one example of these types efforts in this Newsweek post titled “Breakfast in Post-Apocalypse America: Inside Colorado's Fort Knox of Food.”
'Think global, act local' relies on grassroots efforts to solve global problems such as ensuring food safety, supply, and sustainability.
When it comes to figuring out how to feed 9.5 billion people in 2050, we need not only global thinking but global actions to fund and enable those local actions on the farm and in the lab. That was at least one of the challenges tackled by attendees at the Agri-Food Genomics Forumin Edmonton in October, and the solutions presented by speakers were not all about genetic engineering.
Not far from our high tech urban centres and entrepreneurial driven corporate culture, you may find yourself stumbling into a very un-2015 looking world. It contains few high-speed internet services and in some cases no internet at all. Smartphones suddenly drop data connections. More career paths lead out of small towns to high tech pastures, and fewer young people see a future in agriculture.
Leigh Rosengren is an example of a new spirit and drive to stay in rural Canada and find a way to have it all. Equally impressive is that she is breaking through the rural challenges as a woman involved in science and biotech - something else we don't see often enough as we look around National Biotechnology Week in Canada.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped a major bombshell this week with a new report linking red meat, bacon, and processed meats to cancer. Immediately after the report was released, cattle futures dropped. Livestock experts and organizations were quick to aggressively react to the report, criticizing the study for “limited evidence” even though WHO contends it’s based on the most comprehensive data ever.
For the record, WHO’s IARC defines red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”
While staunchly defending their research, WHO says their results have been distorted by the media. Check out what Prof Bernard Stewart, who chaired the working group behind this latest study, told BBC News in the video below.
The University of Lethbridge recognized Alberta agriculture innovator and entrepreneur Cor Van Raay with a 2015 Honorary Degree.
“Cor Van Raay has meant so much to agriculture and the world of agribusiness in southern Alberta, and we were thrilled to highlight his contributions to the region with an honorary degree,” says University of Lethbridge Chancellor Janice Varzari. “His entrepreneurial spirit is truly unique and has established his operations as an industry leader. Beyond that, Cor Van Raay has always been committed to bettering his community through charity, philanthropy and the furthering of education.”
Wheat has been with us for a long time. Exactly how long we may never know, given that soft plant matter, unlike stone, pottery and bone, tends not to be well preserved in the archaeological record. The Ohalo II site in Israel is a bit of anomaly in this regard, owing to its submersion by the Sea of Galilea shortly after the settlement was deserted.
It’s at this Paleolithic site, some 23,000 years old, that the first evidence of collected wild emmer wheat, Triticum turgidum, was unearthed – a discovery that also provides the first indication of a people who may have intentionally disturbed the land in order to facilitate its growth. If validated, it’s a finding that would unwind plant cultivation, if not domestication by 11,000 years.
The majority of our current bread wheat varietals are descendants of those wild emmer grains. Our Neolithic ancestors, who first began to farm wheat, began the process of selecting for desired traits, many of which, such as threshability and size, remain important today.
A good deal of genomic analysis has been conducted on wild emmer wheat. Some has traced genes that had gradually been lost, such as NAM-B1, which is linked to rapid maturation and was found in Nordic wheat varietals as recently as 140 years ago, and is now being re-introduced.
"Buy land, they're not making it anymore" said Mark Twain. What wasn't as obvious at the time was that huge urban centres and 21st century development would use up a lot of land that we had counted on to grow crops, maintain orchards, raise cattle, and sustain forests. With the world's population expected to hit almost 11 billion by 2050 there is no question that our shrinking supply of agricultural land will make it difficult to feed more people. This problem isn't about organic vs GMO or vegetarian vs meat though that debate certainly factors into the challenge. It is all about the very basic question of feeding more people with less arable land, increasing input and transportation costs, non-food uses of ag products, emerging economies, and global supply chains.
On October15th Genome Alberta will be hosting a special forum on sustainable agri-food production that will seek to tackle that seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Over many generations selective breeding, aka as genetic manipulation, has improved livestock in many ways ranging from increased disease resistance to improved meat and milk yields. But now farmers are looking at teaming analytics with genetics to improve livestock even more and do it even faster.
Analytics are technologies that make sense of data gathered by other technologies. For example, data on farm acreage, weather conditions, and crop yields are often gathered by modern farm tractors and other farm machinery. Similarly, data can be collected from livestock via a wide variety of sensors, including animal wearables and robotic milking machines.
The video below shows an example of both animal wearables (you’ll see it on the cow’s front leg) and a robotic milking system. The results of the analysis of the data collected on the animal and on the machines is displayed in easy-to-read visuals (depictions called visualizations) on a tablet in this video for the farmer to see.
Though it may sound like a David Chang fantasy, the idea of pigs bursting with meat and yes, extra ham and thicker chops is nothing to snort at. Assuming, of course, that such genetically modified pork will eventually find its way into the supermarket – a very real possibility.
In late June, biologists in South Korea increased the likelihood of this reality, with the introduction of pigs with super-muscled backsides, as detailed in Nature. The researchers used gene editing – less disruptive than genetic modification since it does not introduce new genetic material from another organism – to block a single gene that normally keeps muscle mass and at normal levels and helps regulate fat deposits. The gene, myostatin (MSTN), is sometimes disabled naturally in humans and dogs, and most notably in the Belgian Blue breed of cattle, resulting in leaner, double-muscled pigs.
For generations, farmers have been focused on improving livestock for better yields per animal. They’ve also worked hard to ensure that more animals survive various environmental threats, from diseases to droughts. Their noble fight has always been against human starvation. But now some are looking to not only feed humans, but to improve human health too.
This is a remarkable and important shift in thinking: from producing simply safe-for-human-consumption food to proactively aiding and promoting human health.
Sure, farmers have always been concerned with producing safe food and that’s not going to change. But how do they produce more than that to the benefit of the human race?
An editorial in the journal Nature Genetics titled Marshaling the Variome suggests that a strong first step in that direction would be to share livestock and plant genomic knowledge with human genomic researchers for the expressed purpose of improving human health.
By extending human health studies to include animals, particularly livestock, and plant genomic data, researchers believe that the genetic answers to human diseases will be more quickly found than studying human genomes alone.
Why livestock genomic knowledge in particular? Because farmers have mastered many similar challenges in farm beasts by identifying and breeding the problems out. Back in the day, they did that by observing closely and managing breeding accordingly. Or, they learned from trial and error. Today, many farmers use sophisticated techniques in successfully breeding animals to overcome environmental obstacles and be resistant to diseases.
That is precisely the knowledge human genome researchers are trying desperately to discover and master. As Richard Cotton explains in the video below on the Human Variome Project, “finding the [genetic] fault in an inherited disease is like looking for a needle in a haystack unless you know where to look…” Comparison and other genomic studies with livestock genomes could be the fastest and best way to identify the problems in human DNA that cause inherited diseases so the genetic repairs can be made and the diseases cured.
Piety and warmongering aside, the European monks of the Middle Ages are known for the richness of their artistry, music and food – most notably cheeses, wine, spirits and beer. In their quest for crafting and preserving beer, it would seem that the monks may have been among the first, unwitting, scientists of yeast. At least this is what modern studies that pinpoint the origins of the world’s most popular beer suggest.
Two studies, one in 2011 and the second released this month, trace the development of lager to Bavaria in the 15th century. Up until this time, beer, or more specifically, ale, had always been fermented in warm environments, owing to the properties of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast found in ale, as well as bread and wine. But, the monks discovered that fermentation was taking place within the casks kept in the cool recesses of the caves in which it was stored. By tinkering with this new yeast, the Bavarian monks were able to develop the signature clean, crisp profile of lager.
But where had this new yeast come from? As adept as the monks were at the early science of brewing, they lacked the technology to understand it. Fortunately, technology has caught up with beer. In 2011, by using genome sequencing, the research team discovered that lager yeast contained the genomes of two different types of yeast – that of S. cerevisiae, our familiar ale yeast, but it also contained the genome of a second yeast for which no known wild source existed in Europe.
"When I started doing this, I was thinking too much like a scientist, and I decided I was going to make their coat white by using the dominant white out of leghorn chickens,” said Dr. James West, Vanderbilt University associate professor of medicine and chief science officer of Climate Adaptive Genetics, in an interview with redOrbit.
“And there's nothing wrong with that; it's that, after we spent time talking to producers, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea of moving in genes from other species.”
The successful applicants in the 2014 LSARP competition were announced in Saskatoon on July 21st and two of the projects submitted through Genome Alberta were successful.
One is a project led by Genome Alberta and the Ontario Genomics Institute to help livestock industry growth through the use of genomics-based approaches to select for dairy cattle with the genetic traits needed for more efficient feed conversion and to lower methane emissions. The other is a Genome Alberta and Genome Prairie initiative to develop genomics tools to help pork producers manage disease, reduce costs, and increase product quality.
$10.3 million for an Alberta - Ontario-led research team
The Canadian dairy industry adds more than $18 billion to Canada's GDP each year with Alberta contributing a significant amount to that total. As international demand for dairy products grows in the coming years, due to growing middle classes in emerging economies and a general global population increase, demand for high-quality milk proteins from Canada is also going to increase.
A project led by Genome Alberta and the Ontario Genomics Institute will help industry growth by using genomics-based approaches to select for dairy cattle with the genetic traits needed for more efficient feed conversion and to lower methane emissions.
$9.8 million awarded to an Alberta – Saskatchewan-led research team
Canadian pork is exported to more than 100 countries and it is consumed throughout the world more than any other source of animal protein. It is big business and managing disease in pork populations is one of the most costly and difficult challenges for pork producers
Dr. Michael Dyck of the University of Alberta, Dr. John Harding of the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Bob Kemp of PigGen Canada Inc. are leading a team that has received almost $10 million in funding to develop genomics tools to help producers manage disease, reduce costs, and increase product quality. These genomics tools can be used to select pigs that are more genetically resilient due to increased tolerance of and or resistance to multiple diseases as opposed to resistance to one particular disease. The tools will also permit producers to manage the nutritional content of pig feed to ensure that pigs stay healthier, grow more efficiently, have more successful litters, and reduce the need for antibiotic use in pig production.
Meet the adorable looking dwarf cow. There’s a video below so you can see the diminutive creature which stands almost three feet tall, or 87 centimeters. They weigh, depending on the breed, around 250 to almost 300 pounds and yield about 5 pints of milk per day. But before you go look, you should know that “cute” isn’t the attraction here.
The critter eats like a goat so farmers don’t need cattle feed or hay to keep a herd alive. They carry a ‘thermometer gene’ that makes them resistant to heatwaves and drought. And, they’re resistant to many diseases too.
In short, some breeds of dwarf cows are so climate change hardy that they seem to be the perfect food for humans in the coming food shortage. Of course, their carcasses produce small amounts of meat. Because of that, geneticists may soon infuse their genetic superpowers into bigger breeds. In any case, these animals promise a brighter future for humans who need to eat meat and milk products.
Ok, now take a look at this remarkable little beastie….
On the surface, the benign-looking wheat plant would seem a very simple thing. And yet, upon its reedy stalk rests a complicated, little understood, vastly important and, if you fall in the gluten-free category, a potentially bloat-inducing food source.
Last week week, the international teams tackling the massive job of sequencing the wheat genome announced the launch of the next phase of work in France, a project that will sequence the 4B chromosome (one of 21 such chromosomes in bread wheat, 11 of which are already underway or completed) and take approximately two years to complete. The bread wheat genome is immense – roughly five times the size of the human genome – and although as much as 80% of it consists of repeated sequences, it’s nevertheless a job that stretches the boundaries of current technologies.
Prize cattle go for big bucks at auctions precisely for their breeding value. However, no matter how perfect any given cow is, she can only produce a calf a year in the natural order of things. Historically farmers have maximized her offspring’s value by breeding her to an equally superior bull. Even so, she still bore one calf at a time. But now farmers are increasingly harvesting prize cow eggs, fertilized beforehand or afterwards in-vitro, and transferring the embryos to lesser valued cows for birthing. In this way, a single high-value cow can produce far more offspring – even hundreds to thousands.
Embryo transfer (ET) is not a new thing. The process was first successfully done in rabbits in 1890 and in a cow in 1951. What’s different now is that the process is better perfected, is cheaper, and more eggs can be harvested at once than ever before.
That is not to say that the process is cheap – only less expensive than it was before. And it’s a bit laborious for farmers. But when done correctly, it can pay off for farmers pretty quickly.
Of course there is one downside farmers have to watch for – the possibility of inbreeding. Fortunately, ET can also be used to increase genetic diversity in the herd too.
“If ranchers choose to breed only offspring from a single cow, they can limit the herd's genetic diversity, potentially making them more vulnerable to disease,” writes Abby Wendle, the author of a NPR report detailing how one farmer uses this technique to his bottom-line advantage. “Paradoxically, ET can also help preserve genetic diversity. As Harvest Public Media's Luke Runyon has reported, the USDA stockpiles embryos from a wide variety of livestock breeds in Fort Collins, Colorado.”
ET can also be used to transfer desirable cattle traits from one region in the world to other regions of the world to improve meat and milk yields or to increase disease resistance and climate change resilience. Below is a video on how ET is improving cattle survivorship and yields in Kenya.
Embryo transfer is also important to many advances in genetic modification and synthetic biology.
If you’ve ever followed a bumblebee in its foraging, you might conclude by its lazy, almost drunken behaviour that it hasn’t a care in the world.
But it should. Bumblebee populations, along with those of many other native pollinators are declining. Across North America and in Europe, these important plant and crop pollinators – bees, wasps, butterflies and moths as well as hummingbirds and bats -- have all been recorded in lower numbers. In Alberta, the overall trend is one of concern. Of the roughly two dozen species of bumblebee in the province, several are in decline. Alberta’s honeybees are not suffering the same extent of loss as their Ontario, US and European cousins, nevertheless, with 2014 winter losses at 18.5%, it is still greater than the 15% accepted maximum. The status of many other pollinators is less certain and the fact that the historic distribution for many species is unknown suggests that declines may have gone entirely unnoticed until very recently.
Wait?! You might say. Hadn’t we already cracked the cattle genome? Yes and no. Before we had a basic outline of the genome so yes, it was cracked, but minimally so. But now, thanks to the work of an international consortium of scientists, we have a much more detailed map – in other words, the genome is laid wide open.
Think of it like Google Maps. What we knew before of the genome resembled the satellite view in Google Maps. Researchers could see the lines in the bigger picture, but not much detail.
Late last year scientists combined the sequenced genome data from 1200 animals of different breeds, mostly ancestral bulls, in a database that is open to many researchers to analyze using new techniques. Data from additional individual animals of many breeds are being added regularly by researchers around the globe.
The initial ancestor bulls produced millions of descendants – the Holsteins alone have fathered 6.3 million daughters at minimum – which has rendered an enormous amount of detail to the genome map. Think of this like Google Maps’ Street View where you can see every building, road, sign, vehicle, person, and other things captured in the interactive photo of that location. Researchers can similarly see striking detail in the cattle genome map.
With the equivalent of Google Maps Street View at their fingertips, researchers can see and understand far more about the genome than they could in single, isolated genome mapping projects using earlier tools and techniques.
"In the past we had only mapped approximately two percent of the variation. Now we have knowledge of it all for a great number of key ancestors. If you use the analogy of a road map, we previously only had sufficient information to see the mileposts on the chromosomal roadmap, but now we can see the entire roadmap," says Bernt Guldbrandtsen in an article in Science Daily.
Here is the first post from our new blogger, Lisa Willemse. Feel free to leave some comments to welcome her to the fold and read a little bit about her background.
The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.
Farming has never been an easy occupation and it will never appeal to those looking to get money for nothing. But there are changes afoot that will make farming considerably more profitable for those willingly to work at it.
Just as big data is now being used to incorporate genetics in precision medicine for humans, so will it also be used to treat livestock more effectively soon. Veterinarians are already beginning to use big data to better diagnose and select medicines that will bring about the best outcome in any given animal. Yes, it’s precision medicine for animals!
In March of this year Genome Alberta's President and CEO David Bailey was asked to make a presentation to the Beef Value Chain Roundtable (BVCRT) held in Ottawa. The BVCRT brings together multiple industry and government sectors to develop new ways to improve the competitiveness of the beef industry. Meetings such as the one Dr. Bailey attended focus on different aspects of the industry, but usually include a range of representatives from ranchers & producers through to the retail portion of the value chain. As antimicrobial resistance in people and animals is becoming a worldwide concern the meeting included speakers talking about alternatives, the European experience in dealing with AMR, and using genomics as a tool to deal with the challenges.
Several reports from researchers around the globe predict the emergence and spread of infectious diseases as the result of climate change. Some of these diseases are new; others are not but they’re showing up in new places creating a new threat for those areas. This unfortunate development has created a new urgency in genetically modifying farm plants and animals specifically for disease resistance.
The search for disease-resistant livestock has been underway for many years since disease has always threatened our food supply. But the scope of that search has changed. Now farmers everywhere need animals that are resistant to far more diseases than just those they have historically fought in their geographical area.
Breeding animals resistant to a multitude of diseases is a huge challenge in itself.
However, that challenge is magnified by other problems.
Lessons learned in Africa
Livestock already exists that are disease resistant and capable of thriving on poor feed and in harsh environments. But those animals tend to be scrawny.
Disease-resistance is not the only trait farm animals need. They also need to produce enough healthy offspring and enough meat per animal to feed a growing population of hungry people. So, hardy but scrawny animals are far from the end goal.
With the latest case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) garnering all kinds of media attention, I thought it might be interesting to turn our attention to some promising research into the disease.
BSE is a rare, fatal, neurodegenerative disease in cattle. Symptoms can include everything from changes in temperament to an inability to stand.
Though there is some evidence to suggest that BSE can result from a mutation within the prion protein gene, it is most commonly spread by feed containing meat and bone meals from infected animals. Infected feed may contain prions (PrPsc), or disease-causing forms of cellular prion protein (PrPc). The pathogenic PrPSc exhibit abnormal folding, and are able to recruit normal cellular prion proteins to fold in the same manner. Clusters of prions appear as microscopic holes in the brain, giving BSE its “spongy” nature.
There is currently no test to detect BSE in live animals, but recent research has shown promising results in both diagnosis and management.
At the end of last week’s post, I briefly mentioned a Canadian DNA lab specializing in livestock. When it was launched in 2011, Delta Genomics was a spin-off of the University of Alberta’s Livestock Gentec Program. Its start was largely thanks to an over $3.5 million investment by Western Economic Diversification, along with further support coming from Alberta Innovates, the Alberta Livestock and Meet Agency, Genome Alberta and Genome Canada.
A while back, I wrote of my curiosity for genomics, and understanding the hands-on aspects of collecting and analyzing DNA. I’d like to explore that topic in the next few posts, with this one focusing on collecting a hair sample, and subsequent posts following it through to the laboratory.
The PED virus kills young piglets at an astonishing rate with a near 100% mortality rate in suckling pigs. A Canadian effort has been launched to understand and stop the disease to protect the young pigs and to aid the pig industry in North America.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea first appeared in the United States in April 2013 and by January of 2014 it has appeared in Canada. Since it was first discovered in the U.S., at least 8 million pigs have died. So far more than 70 cases have been reported in Canada and it has found its way into PEI, Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba.
Genome Alberta saw a way for genomics to be used to respond to the threat and decided to put together a plan and find the necessary funding. It wasn't an easy challenge for us to take on with limited budget and resources, but it was worth it because the resulting collaboration is good news for PEDv research and for the pork industry.
Genetically modified organism (GMO) foods are still a topic of hot public debate in many places around the world. Unfortunately much of the opposition to GMOs is based on misinformation and misconceptions making it difficult to move the conversation forward in any meaningful way.
For example, a recent survey conducted by Oklahoma State University's Jayson Lusk and Susan Murray found that 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food that contain DNA. Since food, natural or genetically manipulated, comes from living organisms, DNA presence is a given. Yet fear and misunderstanding of DNA in food appears implicit in this reaction and represents the seriousness of such stumbling blocks in public discourse on food production and farming.
“Given that a label warning of a food's DNA content would be, for all intents and purposes, as meaningless as a label warning of, say, its water content, the survey results reflect an unsettling degree of scientific ignorance in the American population,” writes Robbie Gonzalez in his i09 post.
“The survey results are also symptomatic of chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemicals deftly parodied by a recent episode of Parks and Rec,” he continued. And here is the video of the episode he refers to:
Not to in anyway discount or diminish legitimate concerns with some GMO foods, but some public discussions on the topic reminds me of the current “anti-vaxxer” movement, also a clear case of chemophobia, which is currently threatening lives in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ignorance of basic science leads to regrettable public outcomes that could have been prevented.
In the case of the anti-vaxxer, faux science movement, the regrettable public outcome is disease outbreak. In the case of the blanket anti-GMO movement, the regrettable public outcome would likely be rampant starvation.
Last week, at the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference, Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart announced $3.8M in funding to support livestock-related research projects. One of the projects will investigate genetic resistance to Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED).
PED is a coronavirus, a subset of RNA viruses (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=22789). It causes diarrhea and vomiting in swine, with up to 100% mortality in nursing piglets. Although highly virulent in swine populations, the virus is not zoonotic, and does not pose a risk to human health or the health of other animals.
"You can look at antibiotic resistance as a slow moving global train wreck, which will happen over the next 35 years," health law expert Kevin Outterson at Boston University, told Scientific American.
When it comes to antimicrobial resistance, the headlines paint a bleak picture. And perhaps that’s for the right reason. The issue isn’t something we should take lightly, and in most cases, articles on the subject seem to be written in an attempt to motivate change.
It turns out that eating fermented food and drink, including beer, for the past 7,000 years has led to the evolution of bacteria that may hold the key to strengthening the immune system in both humans and livestock.
A team of international researchers, led by Harry Gilbert of Newcastle University, Eric Martens of the University of Michigan, and University of Lethbridge adjunct professor Wade Abbott of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), has discovered that certain strains of bacteria in the human gut – Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (Bt) – have developed a taste for yeast.
Imagine milking goats not to take white butter or fromage de chèvre to the farmers’ market, but to sell spider silk proteins.
The concept was originally brought to the lab by Montreal scientists in 1999, who cloned identical triplet goats in the hopes of eventually producing transgenic goats that could be milked for spider silk, or “BioSteel.” Though fruitful in their efforts, the group failed to bring the product to market, resulting in the bankruptcy and dismantling of their company in 2009.
The word ‘caribou’ has been used since the mid seventeenth century, originating from the Micmac word for North American Rangifer tarandus, ‘qalipu,’ means ‘snow shoveler.’ Occasionally in North America and predominantly in Europe, the species is referred to as ‘reindeer.’
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there are some differences in the genetics of reindeer versus caribou. A study published in Nature Climate Change in December 2013 showed evidence of two main caribou lineages.
No doubt you’ve heard about big data by now. Several farm organizations have warned farmers of the dangers of vendors collecting farm data although some associations have struck accords with some of those data-collectors already. But today, let’s examine how big data is being used to help farmers in improving their livestock yields.
First for the backdrop on farm data mining that upset farm associations to illustrate that big data, like other technologies, is indeed a double-edged sword.
“For instance: Your local seed salesman might get the data, and he may also be a farmer — and thus your competitor, bidding against you for land that you both want to rent,” explained Dan Charles in his NPR post. "’All of a sudden he's got a whole lot of information about your capabilities,’ says Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director for congressional relations.”
“Or consider this: Companies that are collecting these data may be able to see how much grain is being harvested, minute by minute, from tens of thousands of fields. That's valuable information, Thatcher says. ‘They could actually manipulate the market with it. They only have to know the information about what is actually happening with harvest minutes before somebody else knows it. I'm not saying they will,’ says Thatcher. ‘Just a concern.’"
Much of this data is collected from farm equipment but some it comes from vendor customer data, field sensor data, satellite data, and other sources too. That’s why it’s called big data, it’s a lot of data from many different sources and in many different forms that are then analyzed together.
Since that first alarm call, the American Farm Bureau Federation has announced a “coalition to resolve the issues between farmers and agriculture technology providers.” You can find details on that effort in my post in FierceBigData.
So the above are a few examples of how the big data sword can harvest the farmer, so to speak.
But big data can help farmers too in lots of different ways. You’ll find excellent examples and discussion on this in an article in Delta Farm Press. Suffice it to say that lots of change is coming to farming and much of it is focused on collecting and analyzing farm data for the purpose of increasing farm yields.
Consider for example drones designed for farm use like the Canadian made drone in the video below. Although the video uses the example of gathering corn field data, it can be used to gather animal data in the field too.
On Friday, Montana state officials announced that a few thousand head of cattle had been quarantined, as a cow near the border of Yellowstone National Park has tested positive for brucellosis.
Brucellosis was first introduced into North America by infected livestock brought in by European settlers. It’s a zoonotic bacterial infection with forms that affect many different species of mammals, most notably humans, bison, elk, cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats.
In cattle, signs of brucellosis are limited. The disease presents itself most commonly with abortions and premature calf death.
Drum roll please ... because the winner of the Biotech Shorties contest in the Philippines have been announced.
The ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) and SEARCA ( Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture) sponsored the contest to see what people in the Philippines thought about biotechnology in agriculture.
The film makers had 3 minutes to illustrate the benefits of biotechnology so the perspective is admittedly one-sided, but the videos are interesting so we thought we'd share the winning entries with you:
Until recently science thought all infectious diseases in animals and humans were caused by living organisms, namely bacteria, viruses and fungi. In other words, infectious disease was caused by a living entity that contained DNA or at the very least RNA.
Hence our treatments for farm animals and humans are designed to kill the offending organism. But you can’t kill that which is not alive. Prions, basically malformed proteins, are not alive by any standard. They lack DNA yet they self-replicate and spread, hence their infectious nature. Now scientists are struggling to find a way to treat diseases caused by killer dead things.
You could think of them as zombies if you have a fondness for science fiction. But make no mistake prions are not fiction.
I’ve had quite a few conversations in the last few weeks about the science behind transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) such as mad cow and chronic wasting disease, but it wasn’t until a cow/calf producer recently asked me about genetic susceptibility to scrapie that I decided to look into it for this blog.
Scrapie, a disorder of sheep and goats, was first identified in the early 1700s and, as you may have inferred, belongs to a family of neurodegenerative disorders known as TSEs. It’s generally accepted that these disorders are caused by prions, which are abnormal pathogenic agents that have the ability to cause abnormal folding in normal, specific, cellular, prion proteins. It’s confusing, I know. But, perhaps their short-forms will help. Prions (the bad guys) are often referred to as PrPsc, with the ‘sc’ honouring scrapie, the first known TSE. Alternatively, prion proteins (the normal, cellular guys) are referred to as PrPc.
I gave my mom a hand feeding the cows yesterday and as we waited for the stragglers to arrive before rolling out grain, we started talking about genetics, and the pros and cons of bringing in another breed to the operation. The whole ordeal got me thinking, do most cow/calf producers know about the possibilities of genomics? Or understand the various ways to demonstrate genetic potential?
It’s a hard word to grasp, though its definition is relatively straightforward. Sustainability refers to a system that maintains, if not increases, its viability for the future, utilizing techniques that allow for re-use. It’s a buzzword in agriculture circles right now, fuelled by the public’s ever-increasing interest animal welfare, the environment and corporate ownership.
The Ebola epidemic is scary and every effort is being made to squelch its spread. Among those efforts is the search for a human vaccine. One of the most promising vaccines under development requires the use of a livestock virus, specifically a weakened vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). While the vaccine could save millions of human lives it could also increase infections in livestock through exposure to vaccinated people.
VSV affects horses, cows, swine, sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas. Essentially it resembles foot and mouth disease (FMD) as it causes painful blisters in the mouth and on the foot, although it is less severe than FMD. In some animals the blisters will also appear on the sheath or udders. There is no treatment other than soft foods and pain control for the duration but infected animals generally recover within two weeks.
Compared to human recovery rates from Ebola, just about everyone considers the potential increase in livestock infections an acceptable trade-off especially since infected animals rarely die from VSV. Still the issue isn’t being taken lightly. The vaccine makers are weighing the potential impact and looking for ways to potentially curtail it.
When asked about the possibility of vaccinated humans spreading the disease to livestock, Charles Link Jr., CEO of NewLink, the makers of the vaccine, said in an interview with Science magazine: “It's a legitimate concern and we're looking at ways to evaluate that.”
Recently announced funding from the federal government could support the development and commercialization of enzymes to improve feed efficiency in the pork sector.
Canada’s hog industry brings in $9.8 billion annually, according to the Canadian Pork Council. Stats Canada numbers recorded 2011 exports at more than one million tonnes of pork, to more than 80 countries, ranking this country as fifth among world exporters.
Media Release, October 9, 2014. A new research program, funded in part by Genome British Columbia, aims to help BC’s dairy farmers by taking the guesswork out of determining which young heifers will develop to be the best milk producers. Through a simple hair sample, a genomic-based test will demonstrate the genetic markers of desirable traits like volume, fat content and protein. This data will allow farmers to make informed breeding and selection management decisions that will result in a more productive herd and improved dairy profitability.
Genetic engineering could go beyond shrinking or eliminating horns in cattle. It could be the much-needed antidote to one of Africa’s greatest zoonotic diseases.
Roughly 22% of cattle in Africa die before three months of age. They, like 6% of their adult counterparts are lost to disease. For those that survive, many will never be good producers, carrying the burden of disease without relief, increasing their susceptibility to both ectoparasites and endoparasites.
Media Release, Aarhus University, October 3, 2014. The cattle genome has now been mapped to a hitherto unknown degree of detail, constituting a quantum leap for research into the history and genetics of cattle. By creating a global database an international consortium of scientists has increased the detailed knowledge of the variation in the cattle genome by several orders of magnitude. The first generation of the new data resource, which will be open access, forms an essential tool for scientists working with cattle genetics and livestock history. The results are published in an article in the scientific journal Nature Genetics.
Everything we do carries risk. The clothes we wear are synthetic. The food we eat is unnatural. Yet, we thrive.
Genetic engineering, first attempted in the late 20th century, is a process of altering specific genetic material to change heredity traits of a cell or organism. The resulting organism is deemed genetically modified (GM).
Government food safety agencies in many countries are hesitant to approve genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for human consumption. In some cases that hesitancy centers on scientific questions but sometimes reluctance hangs more on public fears. Now a group of scientists think that both concerns can be resolved with specific genetic editing instead of pursuing broader genetic modifications.
What’s the difference between the two genetic tamperings, you ask? It is the difference between a cow that doesn’t grow horns and a cow that produces human breast milk. Let’s take a closer look at both, shall we?
Genetic modification is a broad term referring to genetic alterations in general which also includes mixing genes from different species to lend new traits to an organism that did not previously exist in that organism. That end of the genetic modifications spectrum is called transgenetics.
As an example of this, watch the short video below on China’s effort to feed more starving infants by genetically modifying cows to produce human breast milk.
Starving infants, you see, tend to have starving mothers. Breast milk in starving mothers dries up as the mother’s body shuts down body functions in a desperate attempt to survive. Even so, sometimes the mother does not survive. Either way, the starving baby is on its own unless other humans intervene.
Some of the affected babies can survive on cow’s milk, but some cannot, and all do better when fed human breast milk. Further, there have been issues with synthetic baby formulas, particularly in China, some of which proved toxic. Hence China’s efforts to produce more human breast milk pretty much by any means necessary.
By contrast genetic editing primarily involves altering an animal by either turning off a gene, such as the one that signals horn growth, or adding genes from another breed in the same species to transfer a certain trait, such as hornlessness. To clarify using this same example, genetic editing either turns off the horn-making gene in the cow, or adds a gene from another breed of cow to make this cow also be hornless. Genes from another species are not introduced in this effort.
Whether you’re choosing a breakfast cereal or sowing the seeds that go into it, you are touched by science, and specifically biotechnology. Besides being responsible for synthetic insulin and chymosin (or rennin, used in cheese production), since the early 1990s, biotechnology has contributed largely — and controversially — to agriculture.
“Biotechnology,” “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) and “genetic engineering” have evolved from terms to contentious issues. They inspire heated debates, which challenge suppliers, consumers and public policy. This month alone, mainstream media has covered and questioned a scientific study on GMOs and one company’s decision to source GMO and non-GMO commodities alike. And, as individuals touched by this science, this information, these debates, it is our duty to remain informed.
Why, yes, this is a blog dedicated to livestock genetics and as odd as it may sound, this story does indeed involve some livestock gene manipulation. But let’s put first things first here at the intersection of climate change and farm gasses.
For awhile now, different environmental groups have pointed to the act of eating a single cheeseburger as the greatest environmental threat ever. Not just the deadliest environment killer on your plate but in the entire scope of all the things human beings can do to bring about an environmental apocalypse. Apparently we are all going to die from an onslaught of burger joints.
“The documentary film ‘Cowspiracy,’ released this week in select cities, builds on the growing cultural notion that the single greatest environmental threat to the planet is the hamburger you had for lunch the other day,” writes Jayson Lusk in his post on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal.
Duh duh dun cue the disaster movie music and watch this official trailer of the movie if you dare. I bet you’ll never eat meat or trust your neighboring farmer ever again.
“As director Kip Andersen recently told the Source magazine: ‘A lot of us are waking up and realizing we can choose to either support all life on this planet or kill all life on this planet, simply by virtue of what we eat day in and day out. One way to eat takes life, while another spares as many lives (plant, animal and otherwise) as possible,’" Lusk continued.
But wait, the alarm is sounded even louder and this time directed not at the lowly burger but at cattle ranchers.
Alberta researchers are starting to get some promising results back from a five year study aiming to improve molecular breeding values and show how genomics can be used by beef producers to make better breeding decisions.
University of Alberta researchers split the composite herd at the Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch into control and experimental groups. Cows in the control group were bred to control bulls, while the other cows were bred to feed efficient bulls. The Kinsella herd is heavily influenced by Angus sires, but still includes traces of Hereford, Brown Swiss, Simmental, and other breeds.
Early in June, I booked into a bed and breakfast near Ravenscrag, Saskatchewan to work on a new writing project. The journey there ended up being a little more dramatic than I wanted – my Chevy Tracker lost a wheel on the highway near Kyle, Sask, and I ended up borrowing a car from some kind strangers for about 10 days – but the destination ended up being well worth the trouble.
Jim Saville, the proprietor of the bed and breakfast, had several different heritage breeds on the place. Maybe it’s the ag journalist or farm girl in me, but those critters made my stay even more enjoyable.The Irish Kerry and Canadienne dairy cattle stood out in particular, for me.
Berg conducted research at the ranch from 1960 to 1988. His research proved the value of hybrid vigour to the industry in a time when purebred herds were still the norm for commercial producers. He initially faced opposition, even scorn, from many in the industry, who christened his hybrid herd “Berg’s bastards” and “Roy Burgers.”
In a story as old as farming itself, livestock breeds regularly come to be and cease to exist in the ongoing quest to feed more people. It’s not that extinction of any breed is the desired outcome, nor is its passing callously unnoticed. Indeed, many farmers see the value in protecting legacy and purebred breeds even as they pursue better genetic blends to increase food yields as a matter of necessity. From this duality come a number of breed and species protection programs. But many of those cut both ways; sometimes helping the farmers and other times threatening their livelihood.
It’s not just a desire to maintain a balance in nature that drives these genetic preservation efforts, although that is a practical undertaking as well, but an acknowledgment of the value in keeping extensive genetic material available in order to meet future challenges.
Programs such as the Smithsonian & SVF Foundation Biodiversity Project work diligently to this very practical end. As the name suggests, this project is a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the SVF Foundation.
“The ‘Smithsonian & SVF Foundation Biodiversity Project’ is a terrific example of how a public and private partnership can address a formidable world challenge,” said Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough in an article in Smithsonian Science. “By bringing together the cutting-edge scientific expertise of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute with SVF’s extensive genetic material, we will gather more information on rare and endangered heritage breeds to make a lasting impact on global biodiversity.”
“Heritage breeds of livestock carry valuable and irreplaceable traits such as resistance to disease and parasites, heat tolerance, mothering ability and forage utilization,” continues the writer of that article. “Protecting the genetics and traits of these breeds will help ensure genetic diversity, which could protect the global food chain.”
Both groups bring unique skills to the effort. The SCBI brings “scientists who are leaders in applying advanced biomedical approaches, including assisted reproductive technologies and germplasm cryopreservation, for enhancing the demographic and genetic diversity of endangered species.” The SVF Foundation, on the other hand, “preserves and manages germplasm (semen, embryos, blood and cells) from rare and endangered breeds of food and fiber livestock, elevating rare-breed conservation through biomaterials cryopreservation. The SVF Foundation will be able to reawaken a breed, with its full genetic diversity, within one generation.”
This project has no foreseeable downside and poses every conceivable advantage to farmers worldwide.
But there are other efforts afoot that pose a conundrum for farmers. These tend to focus more on preserving species we generally don’t think of as traditional livestock, e.g. deer and bison, but have historically been a source of food for humans nonetheless.
Zoonotic diseases have been infecting people for a long time.
European researchers recently found the genome of a brucellosis-causing bacterium in a 700-year-old human skeleton in Italy, Science World Report notes. Brucellosis infects several livestock species and humans can contract it through unpasteurized dairy products or direct contact with sick animals.
Brucellosis isn’t the only disease that’s made the leap from beast to man. In fact, the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association’s website notes that 61 per cent of human pathogens are zoonotic. And of the 175 recently emerged notable human pathogens, 75 per cent are zoonotic.
Scientists recently weaved together the sheep genome, an accomplishment that should speed the discovery of important production traits.
DNA includes four different bases, labelled A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s.
“The order determines whether it’s bacteria or a strawberry or a pine tree or a human or a sheep,” Noelle Cockett, provost and executive vice president of Utah State University told the Cache Valley Daily. Cockett verified the research findings and secured funding for the project.
Many livestock producers find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place these days.
Take pork production. These days pork producers are trying to balance the need to produce pork efficiently enough to feed a booming population with concerns around the well-being of those pigs. Cutting mortality, and keeping animals housed, fed, watered, and free from injury and disease isn’t enough anymore for consumers or the corporations that buy pork from producers.
Farmers have bred chickens to grow bigger and faster in order to feed the growing number of hungry humans. But along with that extra weight comes a tendency for the chickens to overheat. If a chicken gets too hot, it dies. That’s not a problem at the moment because farmers can keep the coops cooled but what happens when climate change makes it harder to cool poultry indoors or to raise them free-range outdoors?
Geneticists are working to solve the problem of over-heating fowls. And what they came up with is a smooth-skinned, totally featherless, bald chicken. Not only does that help cool the chicken but it makes it one step easier to throw the bird in the pot since it doesn’t need to be plucked.
If you want to see what bald chickens look like, watch this short video:
“My concern is feeding nine billion people in 2050,” said geneticist Carl Schmidt, who leads a team at the University of Delaware, in an interview with Modern Farmer. “That’s going to be a challenge. And it’s going to be made worse if the climate does continue to change.”
Should farm journalists be objective in their reporting? Or should we take sides?
These were a few of the questions I discussed with the ag community through the Farmers of Canada (@FarmersOfCanada) Twitter account this week. Created and administered by dairy producer Meaghan Thornhil (@ModernMilkMaid), the account gives farmers and others in the industry a chance to talk about their work, a week at a time.
My colleagues and I have been chewing over these issues for a while, as journalists before us have done. But why not find out what producers and the rest of the agriculture industry think as well?
The crowds have been sparse but the discussion has been lively and challenging as we have traveled around Alberta talking to people about the challenges, issues, and ethics surrounding the increased use of biotechnology in livestock production.
In general the people we have talked to don't have the same fears about livestock biotechnology as they do about biotechnology as it is being applied to crops.This is most likely because the applications right now are to enhance or speed up the process of genetic selection and record keeping and not about manipulating the genetic makeup or introducing genes from other species. The conversations have generally come around to unintended consequences. if we can take any one note of caution away from the discussions, that would be it. Make sure we are looking for and measuring consequences and make sure the consumer knows that researchers have the public interest in mind.
Whatever a person’s views on biotechnology and agriculture, the folks at Genome Alberta deserve a pat on the back for discussing those very issues with the public over the last few weeks.
Since late April, they’ve organized workshops across Alberta examining the issues around using genomics in livestock production. Livestock genomics pinpoints biomarkers to speed genetic selection, but does not involve inserting new genes into an animal’s DNA.
Genomics offers many benefits, such as the potential to select more feed efficient beef animals, or breed pigs that resist or tolerate certain diseases. But the technology also poses some ethical issues. The Western Producer’s editorial team recently pondered whether productivity, food safety, animal health and animal welfare are, at times, in conflict with each other in breeding programs.
The International Cooperation to Sequence the Atlantic Salmon Genome (ICSASG) has announced completion of a fully mapped and openly accessible salmon genome. This reference genome will provide crucial information to fish managers to improve the production and sustainability of aquaculture operations, and address challenges around conservation of wild stocks, preservation of at-risk fish populations and environmental sustainability. This breakthrough was announced at the International Conference on Integrative Salmonid Biology (ICISB) being held in Vancouver this week.
Salmonids are an important piece of the economic and social fabric of communities on BC’s coastline and many other countries including Norway and Chile. The fisheries and aquaculture sector is one of the economic engines of BC: seafood is the province’s largest agri-food export, contributing $870 million of the province’s total agri-food exports of $2.5 billion. High value species such as salmon make a significant economic contribution to the economy. Canada’s Atlantic salmon related aquaculture revenues exceed $600 million annually and BC is the only province with a commercial salmon fishery.
It is going to be a long hike from my place in the Foothills to Grande Prairie and it has been many, many years since I've made the drive but I'm looking forward the the trip next week.
The 5th stop in the Genome Alberta and ALMA co-sponsored provincial road show will be in Grande Prairie on June 11th at 7:00p in the Coca-Cola Centre.
With the genomics tools becoming available many of the traditional breeding techniques are being vastly improved.
As the public pushes the livestock industry to cut antibiotic use, researchers are looking for a genetic means to control diseases such as salmonella.
Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec, says removing antibiotics from pork production could lead to worse problems unless the industry has new tools to deal with disease. And so they are working on creating with genetic selection tools with “renewed vigour,” Plastow says.
Park your keister on any fence rail and the talk among farmers will quickly turn to another hashing of the old debate: growth implants, creep feed, or genomics? The goal of course is to increase livestock weights so farming profits are higher and more people in the general population get fed. The problem is that consumers are not all that keen on one of those choices and farmers themselves are split on the issue. Here’s how that debate is going now…
Some farmers are for the more expensive creep feed for calves not yet weaned believing it to be both a natural approach and a provider of sure results. Just how sure those results are is still up for debate. Not all of the hungry little calves gobble as much creep feed as farmers would like them too, leading to fluctuations in weight gains between individuals. Even so, supporters argue that despite the higher front end costs, profits are sure to follow. See the video below for a humorous presentation of that argument wrapped in a song.
Other farmers -- such as Steven Pylot, a ruminant nutritionist by profession, a member of the Saskatchewan Forage Council and the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association, and speaker at the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference -- swear by growth implants.
Genome Alberta is pleased to announce two new programs open for research applications in areas related to agricultural genomics.
One program is known as ALGP2 as it is the second Applied Livestock Genomics Program funded by ALMA, and the other opportunity is the 2014 Program on Research and Innovation Leading to a Rapid Genomics Response to the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus.
Last week we covered a research project out of the University of Alberta that’s examining whether residual feed intake (RFI) in beef cattle affects other important traits. Researchers also aim to show how industry can use genomics to make breeding decisions and improve molecular breeding values.
But that’s not the only RFI project U of A scientists are tackling. Dr. Carolyn Fitzsimmons and her colleagues are also looking at how maternal nutrition affects a calf’s growth and development, plus its RFI potential.
Genome Alberta and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency have launched the second Alberta Livestock Genomics Program.
Areas of specific research interest include:
• Improving the ability of livestock to handle disease, stress and environmental conditions such as drought, heat and cold.
• Reducing the environmental footprint of livestock production.
• Improving traits such as meat quality, feed efficiency or wool production.
• Exploring the social, political, regulatory and economic issues that come with the use of genomics-based technology.
Researchers are looking at ways to use genomic technologies to select breeding animals in beef herds.
“Specifically we’re breeding for feed-efficient herds using estimated breeding values and genomically-enhanced estimated breeding values for (residual feed intake),” says Dr. Carolyn Fitzsimmons of the University of Alberta. Fitzsimmons specializes in gene expression in cattle.
Residual feed intake (RFI) is a measure of feed efficiency in livestock, and is the difference between feed actually consumed and feed required for growth and maintenance. Feed-efficient animals eat less than expected and have a negative or low RFI. Inefficient animals eat more and have a higher, or positive, RFI.
For ages now the world has looked to Canada for leadership in ag science. But now that leadership title may be at risk, said several agriculture groups to MPs yesterday. At issue is federal funding to back long-term agricultural science projects. Without that support, the groups said, Canada’s brightest ag scientists may leave to work on projects in other countries. It’s a brain-drain that’s likely to cost Canada more than a few scientists chopped from payrolls. It also means Canada won’t likely to be able to attract and retain talent from other countries either. And, Canadian farmers may be at a severe disadvantage in the market as a result.
There are a wide range of social issues and perspectives arising from the use of genomics technology and one area sure to get quick reaction is its use in agriculture - just look at the concern around GMOs.
When it comes to the use of genomics in the production of livestock, genetic selection is used more than actual genetic modification but the perception often gets muddy.
As the use of this technology progresses, the need for communication between government, industry, consumers, and the general public is becoming increasingly important. There are often competing perspectives on biotechnology development that come from different cultural backgrounds, economic considerations, political motivations, or from the quality and availability of information.
To ensure the discussions take place and to offer as much context as we can, Genome Alberta with funding from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, is holding a series of public discussion sessions.
Ranchers and others in the industry looking to beef up their knowledge of feed efficiency will want to tune in to a webinar on May 1st hosted by the Beef Cattle Research Council.
The webinar will look at where researchers are in terms of linking genomics to feed efficiency, where the research is going, and how cow-calf producers can boost feed efficiency in their herds by selecting based on residual feed intake.
The day includes panels featuring scientists from across North America. Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam is one of those speakers.
Eenennaam, a researcher with the University of California, Davis, is looking at cattle traits such as feed efficiency, fertility and resistance to bovine respiratory disease.The industry doesn’t have good selection criteria for these traits right now and so Van Eenennaam hopes to “harness the genomics revolution to help identify cattle that are superior with regards to these very important economic traits.”
Academics and ag industry are jumping into the raw milk debate later this month by holding a one-day symposium at the University of Guelph.
The symposium, titled Science to Policy, is slated for April 22, and will feature scientists and dairy producers including raw milk advocate Michael Schmidt. Conference organizers hope to look at how science should be used to inform public policy.
Agriculture is a major economic driver in Alberta but like agriculture in the rest of the world, there are challenges.
Farmers and ranchers have low profit margins as the retail price of food seldom reflects what the producer of the food actually gets. Urban areas in Alberta are expanding into good agricultural land making it more profitable for a farmer to sell his land than raise food on it. The world's population is expanding rapidly and over the next 2 decades or so we will need to increase food production by 70% to ensure a sustainable food supply, and Canada will play a major part in that effort.
Some estimates suggest that the are already upwards of 2 billion people who are malnourished in the world and by 2035 we will have an additional 3 billion people to feed - many of which will add to the numbers of malnourished. Without introducing biotechnology into the system many experts agree that we won't be able to meet the ongoing global food demand.
On April 23rd we're going to look at some of the societal, economic, and environmental challenges faced when biotechnology comes into play in the livestock sector.
Controversy rages over whether Chronic Wasting Disease (CDW) in deer and elk, specifically found in high occurrences on deer farms, is spreading to cattle farms. In cattle, the equivalent disease is known as “Mad Cow Disease.” Deer farmers are busy compiling and presenting evidence that their farms present no threat to wildlife or other livestock farms. They claim CDW is a “political disease” wherein government agencies are wielding an agenda and fear rather than working towards a real purpose. Meanwhile others, like state veterinarians in the U.S. and USDA researchers, point to evidence that deer farms can be a threat to wildlife and cattle farms.
The video below was made by a deer farmer making his case. The video includes independent, third party agricultural experts giving their opinion on the subject as well. As no video could be readily found on the opposing view, please see the news report in IndyStar for additional information on the situation and for informed opinions on both sides of the argument. It’s a rather long read but well worth your time. For the sake of expediency, some of the opposing side’s argument will be highlighted in this post, after the video.
Researchers at Iowa State University found a region on chromosome four that helps explain why some pigs grow more rapidly and have lower virus loads after becoming infected by one strain of the PRRS virus, says Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec.
Media Release, Des Moines, Iowa – March 11, 2014 – The National Pork Board has announced additional funds earmarked for research in the fight against the further spread of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV), which was first identified in the United States last May. The funds – $650,000 through supplemental funding approved by the Pork Checkoff at last week’s Board meeting and $500,000 through a new agreement with Genome Alberta, will provide new opportunities for research.
“This has become one of the most serious and devastating diseases our pig farmers have faced in decades,” said Karen Richter, a Minnesota producer and president of the National Pork Board. “While it has absolutely no impact on food safety, it has clear implications for the pork industry in terms of supplying pork to consumers. Our No. 1 priority is to address PEDV.”
With its delicate blue flowers, larkspur is an attractive delphinium.But it’s not a welcome sight to ranchers in Western Canada and the United States. Large stands can poison up to 10 per cent of a beef herd, according to U.S. researchers. To help counter the toxin, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are puzzling out genetic resistance to larkspur poisoning in cattle.
We humans are facing a serious famine in the near future. Our population is growing at such a rate that it will soon be impossible to raise enough food for everyone if we stick to farming in the usual way. That’s why farmers are working so hard to find ways to produce more food, faster. Two ways they are successful in safely raising more meat are by using antibiotics and genetic manipulation in their livestock. There are pros and cons to each of those efforts. The question is which proves to be the best method in terms of producing more meat and ensuring public health?
The use of antibiotics to keep livestock healthier and make the meat safer for human consumption is controversial. It’s true that overuse of antibiotics in livestock has aided germ evolution and the rise of “super bugs” aka as drug-resistant infections. Obviously, breeding bad diseases on farms is not good for public health. However, farmers cannot always easily tell which animals may be sick prior to slaughter therefore if preventative antibiotics are not administered, even to seemingly healthy animals, bad meat could end up in grocery stores and on family dinner plates. That’s certainly not good for public health either.
To understand more of the arguments for and against antibiotic use in livestock, you may want to watch the video below. As you can see from that debate by experts on both sides, there is no readily evident answer to this conundrum. The only thing the experts appear to agree on is that antibiotics should not be used to promote faster growth in animals to get them to market faster. But that compromise doesn't necessarily work to the best outcome either when you remember that a famine looms and getting more meat to market faster is a necessity.
Cattle producers in the United Kingdom are struggling to control bovine tuberculosis. But researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute are working on a genetic solution to the problem.
Bovine TB is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis. In 2010/2011, the disease cost the UK government £152 million. Between January and November 2013, over 30,000 U.K. cattle were slaughtered in the United Kingdom in an effort to control bovine tuberculosis, according to the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
In early February Genome Alberta hosted a webinar titled “Genomics approaches to respond to the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv)”
During that webinar and in our discussions with people closely connected to PED either through research or industry, there is consensus that PEDv is here to stay and it is unlikely that it will disappear in the near future. Short term approaches to deal with PEDv in Canada are focusing on biosecurity (truck washing, general disinfection etc) and there is optimism that this has been fairly effective in slowing the spread across the country. This immediate action is important but research into long term solutions are where we are focusing our efforts and the collaborative funding group we have cobbled together
The webinar had more than 60 attendees from the U.S. and Canada representing industry, regulatory agencies, and researchers interested in this emerging issue. The main purpose of the online meeting was to bring key people and organizations together to discuss the current status of PEDv in the U.S. and Canada, identify ongoing research efforts, and to discuss opportunities for collaborative research to deal with the problem.
Since the webinar we have had meetings with potential funders, received commitments from government and industry, and have drafted guideline for researchers and funders. We'll be making those drafts available shortly after stakeholders have had more input.
Canada is certainly no slouch when it comes to genomics research. But it’s worth doing a global scan to see what’s happening on the international scene. Here are three quick snippets of stories that are worthy of your attention.
Among the fears critics most often cite is that genetic modified food will change human DNA and life as we know it. In fairness this is probably true, after all farming has quite literally changed mankind’s DNA before and disrupted more than a few traditional societies. However, the changes that have developed in humans over time due to farmers’ genetically controlling the food supply tends to be forgotten in the shadows of new and sometimes mystifying technologies built to do the same thing – feed more people.
According to new research recently published in the journal Nature and summarized neatly in Science magazine, farming, which began about 10,000 years ago, “was one of the most dramatic events in human history.” For one thing, it led to a reshaping of our genomes so that we could digest starch and milk, something the hunter-gatherers could not do. The new research also suggests that the change in diet led to light skinned humans, a contradiction to previous research findings.
“Lalueza-Fox [geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona in Spain] suggests that prehistoric hunter-gatherers got most of their vitamin D from eating lots of meat and that natural selection did not lead to the evolution of light skin until the advent of farming and diets based more on carbohydrates. Thus meat, fish, and eggs, which make up a much higher proportion of diets today than they did for early farmers, are a major source of vitamin D in modern populations, but early farmers would have been much more reliant on sunlight to help produce vitamin D in their skin. ‘It seems possible that latitude is not the key factor in skin depigmentation, but diet,’" he says in the Science magazine article.
But that was not the end of changes in humans brought about by the advent of farming and the farmers subsequent genetic manipulations.
“’It is quite clear that we are looking at a big genetic watershed’ during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in which both genes and biology changed markedly,’” Pontus Skoglund, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, said in the Science magazine article. “’The farmers from across Europe ‘look the same’ and the hunter-gatherers also ‘look the same, the opposite of what we would expect from geography alone.’”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve not heard any criticism of genetically modified foods in the past changing the skin color of some people to white or making it possible for us all to enjoy a warm slice of newly baked bread. Although to be fair, this is the first research to show a correlation between diet and the evolution of skin color. There also doesn't appear to be any widespread grieving over the loss of a near-global nomadic lifestyle as homesteads permanently took root.
But wait, some might say, early farmers did not genetically modify food. Yes, they did. Check out the video below to understand more about how they did that and the effect on all of us from that day forward. But for now, suffice it to say that we called early genetic modification by a different overall catch word: domestication. Farmers took wildlife, be it mammal, fish, bird, or plant, and bred them carefully to increase food production. Controlled breeding is genetic manipulation.
Last week we looked at the information flow component of the Beef Straw Man report, which calls on more information sharing throughout the beef industry. It’s worth noting the Straw Man designated BIXS as the main repository for this information.
This week we’ll look at how the industry could start to tackle the tricky issue of sharing information between sectors, and what success would mean for beef research.
The key question is how can the beef industry get players in each sector to share information that would help them produce a better carcass more efficiently?
At the close of 2013, the Beef Straw Man group published a report to spur the beef industry towards greater profitability, competitiveness, and sustainability. The final report covers everything from leadership to information flow to funding.
Anyone with a stake in the beef industry should take a look at the report. It only weighs in at 12 pages, and so is well worth the time.
Mike McMorris, BIO’s general manager, was on the information flow task team. He took some time last week to give me an insider’s perspective on the report.
Whether you’re raising swine, beef cattle, or any other livestock, your operation is a complex system. Optimizing that system can include everything from improving animal husbandry to picking the right genetics for that farm’s environment.
Brian Melody is the technical services director for PIC. He helps customers make their pork operations as efficient as possible by improving animal husbandry and welfare, nutrition, biosecurity, and best cost decision making. Selecting the right genetics to fit each operation is also important.
Before producers can ratchet up pig performance, they need to identify the most limiting factors. Factors affecting pig growth include everything from feeder space to health.
Look around and you’ll see less diversity in breeds among farm animals. Almost without anyone noticing some once popular breeds are now extinct or nearly so. And we’re not talking just a few breeds either. The result of constantly striving to feed a growing number of hungry humans is the funneling of many purebred breeds into just a few super-producing mongrels. Will the extinct breeds be missed? In the sentimental sense, yes, they will be. In the genetic sense, no, because they are still with us, at least their most unique characteristics are.
Animal diversity will soon be measured in lab and breeding notes on genetic composites rather than in traditional pedigrees or headcounts of distinct breeds roaming the fields. Even so, the mongrels are given names and when the group has sufficient numbers these will be the monikers of the new breeds.
It’s hard to call this change from the old to the new a clear win or loss because it clearly qualifies as both. However, it is important to remember that the so-called heritage breeds too were a man-made product and not a natural occurrence in evolution. Arguably the loss of these animals does not have as significant an ecological cost as that of natural breeds of other species such as lions, tigers and elephants. Still, for many, it does feel like a loss in the animal, and even plant, kingdoms.
“My old animal science books have pretty pictures of Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Bantams, Plymouth Rock and Delaware hens and roosters. Now they are shuffled to the side,” writes Baxter Black in a post in the Tri-State Neighbor. “The most common hogs in commercial operations today are a cross of Hampshire, Duroc and Yorkshire. In FFA, I recall learning the traits of Poland China, Spotted Poland China, Berkshire, Tamworth and Chester White – now ‘heritage’ pigs whose pictures hang in the National Pig Museum.”
“The downside is that [my son] might never see [these breeds or] a watermelon radish or purple majesty potato, and that’s too bad. But it’s the price of feeding the world,” Black continued.
Enter the living farm museums, like the one in the video below, to preserve breeds once loved for their unique qualities as presented in the flesh but now only coveted for their formerly hidden genome. Already people are thinking of these animals as “heritage” beasts of yesteryear and more breeds will soon be added to that classification.
Looking back at what I’ve covered this last year, I realized I’ve been ruminating on how we communicate ag research and the issues around it all year.
My reasons for this obsession are no mystery. As a journalist and writer, it’s only natural that I’d be interested in how we discuss science and agriculture.
But it also seems there’s a growing awareness that research can’t exist in a vacuum. The genomics community uses the acronym GE3LS as shorthand for the genomic, ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social aspects of this research. These factors need to be considered when we’re looking at industry adoption, consumer acceptance, and agvocacy.
Scientists at the University of Guelph consider drug-free alternatives to control harmful parasites in sheep
Media Release, Ottawa, December 16, 2013
Helminths are gastrointestinal parasitic worms that have become a major concern and source of economic loss for sheep producers around the world. A new article published today in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science reviews current research into a promising alternative to control the disease.
According to the paper, the sheep industry has become dependent on drugs to control these parasites. Over time these drugs are less effective as helminths become resistant to the drugs. Therefore, there is pressure on the industry to find alternate strategies. One such strategy is genetic selection. Certain breeds of sheep are more immune to helminths than the conventional breeds used in Canada, and a breeding program that aims to pass on this resistance trait could help to control the disease and ultimately limit production losses attributed to helminth infection.
While many people view a plant based diet as the only way to satiate a growing global population, providing a balanced diet to everyone is a worthy goal, researchers write. And genomics can help us make that happen, they add.
Dr. Jagjit Ludu and Dr. Graham Plastow of Livestock Gentec published a paper earlier this year explaining the role livestock genomics can play in improving food production to feed our ballooning global population.
Like colds and the flu in humans, bovine respiratory disease complex, aka BRD or BRDC, occur most frequently in cattle in the winter. Vaccinations and antibiotics are both available as defenses but eradication of the disease entirely, or at least finding a cheaper and more effective treatment or cure, is the preferred answer to this prevailing animal health challenge. It looks like that answer will soon come from new genetic research.
Today BRD prevention is primarily achieved through good nutrition and vaccinations. Antibiotics can be used once BRD strikes but even when the treatment is successful, farmers can still lose money to the illness. To understand how the disease affects an animal, view this video on the disease process.
“It used to be called shipping fever because it occurred often when mixing cattle from different locations and putting them in close quarters,” said Texas A&M Professor James Womack in an interview with Cattle Network. “It spreads like a cold or flu. It’s a complex disease caused by multiple different species of bacteria and viruses. Symptoms include runny nose and difficulty breathing.”
Since BRD is widely considered the biggest health challenge for beef and dairy producers, eradicating the disease entirely is a highly desired goal. Researchers are now looking for ways to breed susceptibility out of the lineage and to counter the disease in animals living today with genetic based treatments.
And although producers might not genotype their animals right now, they can prepare for the day when they’re ready to invest in the technology.
“If you’re putting your cattle through the chute, and these are key animals in your herd, pull a few tail hairs, put them in an envelope, store it in your office. That day will come when you may want to do DNA on an animal that was influential in your herd and they may be gone out of your herd,” says Sandy.
Beef producers and others in the industry had a chance to learn about genomics at this year’s Canadian Western Agribition. The Canadian Angus and Simmental Associations hosted a one day conference on November 12th, which featured several speakers and a panel to answer producer questions.
I sat down with Sandy Russell on Friday morning to get her take on how genomics can help the beef industry and find out about a couple projects the Canadian Simmental Association has been running. This week’s post will cover Canadian Simmental’s genomics projects, and next week we’ll take a look at the larger picture.
Understanding how pregnant beef cows shift energy from maintaining their own body to the growing fetus could help improve feed efficiency in cows.
Most of the feed cows consume goes to “maintenance requirements,” which includes things such as protein turnover, cell creation, and muscle, bone, and organ maintenance. Organs suck up a lot of energy considering their relatively small mass. Researchers at the University of Guelph found the liver alone uses 25 per cent of an animal’s energy.
Many consumers have made it clear that they prefer “natural” foods rather than edibles created by science. Most people do not understand that the food they deem natural has been genetically manipulated by farmers for generations via selective breeding. So, when they see something like the freakishly doubled-muscled ‘super cow’ their first assumption is that the animal has been subjected to steroids or gene splicing or some otherwise wholly unnatural process. That is not the case. Belgian Blues produce natural, organic meat, the result of simple animal breeding, but will consumers buy it when the meat looks like the product of science run amok?
The meat from Belgian Blues is lower in calories and cholesterol than that of the rest of their species. This is so because the meat lacks marbling – the one thing people associate with beef tenderness and delectable flavor. Instead, the muscle is made of shorter fibers which make for a tasty and tender dish even though that looks unlikely through the glass of a butcher’s meat case.
The thing is that if consumers see the live and intact animal with its bulging muscles and freakish build, they will likely deem the meat unnatural. But if they see only the meat cuts and the all-natural labeling, they will likely note the absence of marbling and deem it unsuitable for consumption.
It’s a serious challenge for farmers who tried to provide beef that is good for people to eat, in both the taste bud and nutritional sense, and produce it in the natural manner people say they want.
Nonetheless, a few farmers are giving it a go and hoping consumers will buy the meat and give it a try. But they admit they’re fighting an uphill battle.
“When you don't fit the industry standards, you have to find someone who wants it,” said Steve Kinser, a farmer in southwest Kansas who is raising Belgium Blues and trying to sell the meat, in a News Sentinel article.
Only time will tell if consumers in North America will want and come to love this beef. Their reaction will mean more than just profits to Kinser and other farmers though.
Scientists will be watching to determine just how much weight consumers put on animal meat appearance in accepting a food as natural. Genetic manipulations in the lab will be handled accordingly.
Meanwhile, a lot more needs to be done to educate consumers on what is and is not “natural” as that line was crossed hundreds of years ago when the first farmer decided which bull he would let mate with which cows.
In other words “natural” animal meats in the sense most consumers mean the word hasn’t existed since shortly after animals were first domesticated. What is it then that consumers really want?
Last week I blogged about a conversation I had with colleagues Chuck Zimmerman and Allison Finnamore on whether farm journalists should be advocates for the industry.We talked about what advocacy really means, whether objectivity is truly possible, transparency, and technology.
Journalists, ag and otherwise, should strive to be objective. We might not like what 'the other side" is saying and might believe it to be incorrect but we need to hear it from an objective voice. Ag industries should advocate for agriculture.
Those remarks were written by Peggy Strankman, who is active in the agriculture industry and currently consults under Barbwire Consulting.
Today everyone with an Internet connection can voice their opinions and potentially spread misinformation, whether they mean to or not.
While well-researched columns are important, I can’t help wondering if objective journalism is even more important today than it has been. I decided to talk to Karen Briere for her take on advocacy and objectivity.
Should the agriculture media act as advocates for agriculture? And what does it mean to be an agriculture advocate (or agvocate)? These are questions I posed to two of my colleagues at the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation conference in Harrison, B.C., last weekend.
“On the subject of ‘are agricultural journalists advocates for the agricultural industry,’ I would say, in my opinion…that the answer is mostly yes,” said Chuck Zimmerman. “It’s kind of hard, in my opinion, to write or report on an industry that you passionately enjoy, love–whether you’re a farmer or not yourself–and not have that influence what words you choose.”
Zimmerman has a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Florida. He covered agriculture news for several years before starting his own company with his wife, Cindy. Today they run ZimmComm New Media out of Florida.
What is an agvocate?
Zimmerman said he doesn’t really believe in such a thing as unbiased journalists, in agriculture or any other industry. “They may say they’re not, but you know I think the proof’s in their words.”
A journalist who reports on something negative within the agriculture industry can still be an advocate, Zimmerman said. Ag journalists can also help people who aren’t farming better understand where their food comes from.
There have been numerous skirmishes over North American food and agriculture lately, but the issues are familiar; “factory farming,” animal welfare, food safety.
In Canada, raw vs. pasteurized milk advocates are squaring off over the recent cheese recall, which has left one person dead and several others ill. Gort’s Gouda Cheese products, made from raw milk, somehow became contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The company has recalled 15 of their products.
The last thing a busy farmer wants to do is leave the field to sit in front of a computer and pour over mountains of breeding data for the right genetic hook-up for his cows. Now, finally, there’s a mobile app for that so farmers can review breeding bulls from a smartphone or tablet while sitting on a tractor seat or a fence rail. After all, time management and strategic breeding selection are both crucial to a farmer’s success. When you can do both at once, well, Bingo!
Despite the tremendous success Canada has enjoyed over the past few decades in livestock genetics, the results of that success have not previously been shared over time-saving and productivity enhancing mobile applications (apps). At least that was the surprise discovery made by Ted and Alanda Fuller in St Marys when they went to look at other livestock genetic apps for inspiration and guidance. They were trying to create an app for Listowel-based Foundation Genetics, which is a Canadian company chockfull of dairy breeding specialists who, among other things, peddle bull semen.
Not that Foundation Genetics was focused on creating a mobile app either, according to a report in London Community News. Indeed, the couple was initially hired to simply redo the company’s website. But thinking high-tech as high-techies do, the couple immediately thought of creating a companion mobile app. After all, a website, even one specifically designed for mobile device viewing, leaves much to be desired in the way of tiny-screen-virtual-keyboard-plus-farm-dirty-hands usefulness. A mobile app is far more screen tap friendly.
Being a high-techie sort myself, I visited Google Play (the app store for all things Android) to see if it was true that all that Canadian richness in livestock genetics was indeed MIA from the lineup prior to SireSelector.
What I found was mighty slim pickings.
There is an Angus Australia app produced by the Agricultural Business Research Institute that is a full-blown breeding genetics app. It became available in April of this year. There is also the Angus Mobile app produced by the American Angus Association which became available this month but it’s mostly a digital calving book with info on Angus sales. Then there is the Cattle Breeding Calculator app produced by R3 Consulting that became available in January 2012, but it’s mainly a gestation calculator.
There is also the Pro Cattle Breeding app produced by Smart Farm Apps in July 2012 but it is more a tracker of cows in heat than a bull selector.
Plus there is the Beef Cattle EPDs app produced by Mindy Montgomery in February 2011. It is a quick reference guide for EPDs by breed.
In any case, farming – particularly the livestock breeding end of things – has come online and now found its way into popular mobile app stores. It may have gotten off to a slow start but it did arrive. Good thing too for if there ever was an industry that needed mobile computing in the field, it’s farming. Aren’t you glad to know that finally, there’s an app for that!
A UN report released September 18 calls for more public spending on agriculture research and technology.
The report, released by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says that this ag research investment must be paired with training of agricultural professionals in developing countries.
The private sector has been investing in agriculture research in recent years. But Achim Dobermann, deputy director-general of research at the International Rice Research Institute, said the private sector doesn’t generally cover essential areas such as environmental impact.
A seemingly unlikely organ plays a significant role in feed efficiency.
“The liver accounts for only 1.2 per cent of body weight in bovines, but the organ itself consumes 25 per cent of all the energy utilized by cattle. That’s a telling sign and kind of the reason for the focus on the liver in this project,” says Richard Horne, policy advisor with the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association.
“Although it’s a very small part of the animal’s body, it consumes a quarter of the animal’s energy, and obviously energy plays a huge role in the efficiency of animals.”
A producer cooperative based in Ontario is working on ways to improve genetic evaluations of livestock, and therefore improve the bottom line for producers.
“Our research and development really falls into two big buckets. One is the development part, and that’s bioTrack. And then a lot of the research stuff is focused on genomics and building that into our genetic evaluation system,” says Mike McMorris, general manager of BIO.
Scientists have been working in transgenics for some time now in a variety of attempts to enhance one species with the features and abilities of another. The most recent such effort ended in success when two glowing bunnies were born this month in a Turkish lab.
"These rabbits are like a light bulb glowing, like an LED light all over their body,” biogenesis researcher Dr. Stefan Moisyadi told Hawaii local news channel KHON. “And on top of it, their fur is beginning to grow and the greenness is shining right through their fur. It’s so intense."
They produced these bunnies by injecting jellyfish genomes into rabbit DNA. The cute little white rabbits look normal in daylight but glow fluorescent green under an ultraviolent light.
The goal in all such livestock experiments is to produce human benefits via more and tastier meat to feed an ever growing human population, create vitamin and nutrient rich dairy products and even human breast milk in animals to feed starving children, and to create new medicines to treat whatever ails mankind, among other purposes. In the case of these rabbits, the goal is to eventually repeat the success in larger livestock, namely cattle and sheep, in order to produce proteins needed for new drug production.
"Animals can make valuable proteins in their milk that humans use for medicine, and you can extract the proteins quite easily," Stefan Moisyadi, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa who worked with the Turkish team told the LA Times. "It would make certain pharmaceutical production extremely cost-effective."
"The green is not important at all – it's just a marker to show the experiment can be done successfully," Moisyadi told The Guardian. "The final goal is to develop animals that act as barrier reactives to produce beneficial molecules in their milk that can be cheaply extracted, especially in countries that can not afford big pharma plants that make drugs, that usually cost $1bn to build, and be able to produce their own protein-based medication in animals."
The cute little bunnies do not suffer in any way from their newfound glowing abilities. They are expected to live a normal rabbit life and a full lifespan.
It seems logical that a pig’s temperament would affect its stress levels during handling. But exactly which temperament traits play into this, and whether they’re heritable, are questions that still need to be answered. Researchers at the Prairie Swine Centre set out to do just that, and their study yielded some interesting results.
Several researchers designed a study to link temperament traits to stress responses in pigs.They wanted to find out if individual pigs displayed the same traits over time and if these traits are heritable. The two-part study involved over 500 pigs.
A research team is studying mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) and its effects on bison, with the goal of stemming future outbreaks in both cattle and bison.
M. bovis plagues feedlot cattle, causing respiratory disease, including chronic pneumonia, along with ear infections and polyarthritis syndrome (CPPS). But bison are affected differently by the pathogen. A recent study by Dr. Pat Burrage of Burrage Veterinary Services found that the disease seems to spread through the bison’s whole body. Organs such as the uterus, heart and kidneys were affected in both young and mature bison.
Vibrio is a common cause of reproductive failure in Canadian cow-calf herds, caused by the bacteria campylobacteur. It’s not common in confined herds, but is seen more in community pastures and other areas where cows and bulls from different herds commingle. Vaccines are available and recommended for cows and bulls being sent to community pasture.
While the public debate rages on over the value of genetic food enhancements versus the value of organics, one central fact remains inescapable: we will soon reach a food crisis. In the very near future there will simply be more human mouths to feed than there is food to feed them. In other words, mass starvation is not a probable outcome but a definite one if we do not do something now to avert the calamity.
The question, of course, is what should we do? The answer is not a singular one but a collection of efforts all aimed at solving the various challenges throughout the farming process.
In regards to the genetic enhancement work on livestock that we see happening now, such will continue but the science behind those efforts will get better. The goals – to produce disease-resistant, drought-resistant, high production animals – will remain the same. However, the collective approaches towards those goals will change and improve but also broaden.
Part of that broadening will include new automation technologies to speed food production and overcome the limits of human labor. Specifically, robotics will take a more central role in farming. Robotics is not a new concept to farmers. Automation exists today in everything from dairy milking machines to hay balers and lots of stuff in between.
But the robotics in use today are essentially simple-minded, one-task servants. Most require humans to operate them or at least oversee their work. By contrast, future farm robots will be intelligent and multi-task machines that will tend to everything from artificial insemination to tending the fields entirely on their own. In this way, farming tasks will be performed faster, with more precision, and in non-stop motion. After all, robots do not need sleep or bathroom breaks. And many will operate with little to no human intervention.
As previews of farming robotics to come, take a look at these videos on two different versions of the new multi-taskers.
The intelligent “swarm” of robots….
The Lettuce Bot….
Once intelligent robots are perfected and in wide use, it is highly likely that genetic enhancements and manipulations of animal meats will take a turn to meet robotics in the middle of the field, so to speak. For example, robotics can “raise” lab meats at a phenomenal rate just as they can tend entire animals and fields of plants on the farm.
Lab cultured meat is not restricted to beef, by the way. Everything from chicken and pork to fish and frog leg meat can be produced the same way.
To understand how edible meats are made in a laboratory, and how future robotics can one day take over the task of their mass production, watch this video:
Suffice it to say that traditional farming is about to undergo radical changes from a number of disruptive technologies, all of which will come together in a seamless force of mega-food production. Let’s hope it all happens in time to save us from the largest starvation event mankind has ever faced.
Genome Alberta held a funding competition to develop ways to quickly detect pathogenic E. coli. Current detection technologies require a culturing period of the samples, which can take anywhere between 18 and 24 hours, says Gijs van Rooijen, Genome Alberta’s Chief Scientific Officer.
“The idea of this particular competition was to develop a detection technology that would be much quicker so that within a single shift, within eight hours, you would actually take a sample and get results back. So the all clear would be given much sooner,” says van Rooijen.
Topics include genomic links to everything from fertility to beef tenderness. But there are several researchers covering genetics and feed efficiency.
One of those researchers is Dr. Bob Weaber of Kansas State University.
Weaber and his colleagues are in the middle of a five year, $5 million project that includes 24 seedstock producers and a commercial feedlot. Two-thirds of the project covers research and the other third is dedicated to extension.
Researchers are pulling DNA samples from 10,000 cattle representing eight beef breeds, including Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Charolais, Hereford, Wagyu and Limousin.
For years now, the evolution of the horse to the domesticated animal it is today was thought to be a fairly straightforward path. So straightforward, in fact, that the steps from ancient to modern horse could be a simple t-shirt graphic. But as the 1960s American comedy “Mister Ed’s” theme song puts it, scientists “went right to the source and asked the horse” to find out if that was indeed the case. A 700,000-year-old horse to be exact and what they found shattered everything we believed about the evolution of the farmer’s most beloved work animal.
A fossilized bone of an extinct and ancient horse was found in permafrost near Thistle Creek, Canada in 2003. It was the source of the now oldest complete genome ever to be sequenced. Previously, the record was held by an 80,000-year-old cousin of humans.
Anyway, a multinational team of scientists were able to time-travel back through the evolution of the horse and see exactly how it got here. The trip the horse made forward was anything but simple, straight and sure-footed. The path branched in many directions, sometimes leading to dead-ends, swelled in places where it appeared certain horse-kinds would prevail but some died off nonetheless, and the lineage otherwise pitched and turned until the modern horse was forged.
It now appears that all modern horses, zebras and donkeys came from the same ancestor that pounded across frozen grasslands twice as long ago as we originally thought – about 4 million years ago. But our sequenced DNA horse evolutionary record goes back only 700,000 years – that stretches further back than the evolutionary records we currently have on man or other beasts though.
Along the way the researchers were able to confirm that Przewalski’s horse, an endangered species found on the Mongolian steppes today, is the last of the truly wild horses. All others on the planet are of a domesticated variety.
The researchers think that the population boons and busts throughout time may soon be explained by large scale geological and climate changes. In other words, tracking the evolution of the horse tells us a great deal more than just the history of horses. It can also tell us a great deal about the history of the planet and the evolution of man.
Just over ten years ago a six-year-old cow from a Wanham-area ranch tested positive for BSE. Over 30 countries barred their borders to Canadian beef, costing the beef industry over $4 billion between 2003 and 2005, according to the University of Lethbridge.
But since then, industry and government have been working to open borders and implement traceability. Researchers have been busy, too, to develop a better understanding of the disease and create affordable tests to detect it.
Researchers, veterinarians, and feedlot operators are working on a chute-side tool that would detect common bovine diseases in the early stages, allowing feedlot operators to treat and contain sick animals promptly.
The project targets Histophilus somni, Mycoplasma bovis, and bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV). H. somni, which causes a blood infection, is the number one killer of fall-placed calves. M. bovis causes chronic pneumonia, ear infections, mastitis, and arthritis, while BVDB is responsible for a host of problems ranging from abortions to congenital defects.
Earlier this spring I talked to Sean McGrath, a rancher from the Vermilion area, about a project sequencing DNA from influential Angus sires. We also spoke about the benefits of, and challenges around, adopting genomic technology at the ranch level.
McGrath and his family regularly use genomic testing on their ranch.
“If you sold me a bull, I would have a sample pulled out of his ear basically before he got to the end of the chute off your trailer,” he says.
Environmental groups have long complained about the effects of methane gas from cattle polluting the environment. Indeed, methane is a greenhouse gas packing both a noxious smell and a 25 times larger punch than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming impact.
As the world’s human population grows, so does the cattle population to feed them and thus the volume of expelled gas grows too. Vegans would argue the point as a valid reason to give up meat-eating altogether but it is exceedingly difficult to fulfill a single human’s entire dietary requirement with only a vegetable source, let alone do that on the scale necessary to sustain all humans on the planet. Besides, vegetable farming has its own negative environmental impacts.
Fortunately farmers may soon be able to deflate cow gas to more environmentally friendly levels.
The RuminOmics project aims to increase the efficiencies of farming while reducing or eliminating negative environmental impact. Scientists from France, Italy, the U.K., Finland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Sweden plus some high-powered advisors from Canada and Australia are all involved in the four year project. Their early findings concur with the existing idea that genetics affect how much intestinal gas an animal produces.
But the scientists are not focused on making farm animals less gassy solely because of environmental impact; they also say the gas is a waste of feed energy and thereby negatively affects farm production.
"Methane production represents a waste of feed energy, varying between two and ten percent of total energy consumed by an animal,” Professor John Wallace said in an article in Phys.Org. Wallace researches microbial metabolism in the gut of both humans and farm animals at the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health. He is also leading the RuminOmics study.
"Methane production is important for cattle and sheep farmers because if the amount of methane produced can be lowered then there are benefits for the environment, production, and profitability," he added in the same Phys.Org article.
It therefore makes sense on several fronts to breed selectively for livestock that is more efficient in digesting feed and therefore produces less methane.
But digestive gas isn’t the only source of methane coming from cattle and sheep. It is also present in their manure. Some farmers are harnessing that source of methane to literally power their farms. Watch this video to learn how one enterprising family is achieving exactly that.
As farmers become savvier in increasing farm efficiencies, particularly in the containment and use of methane, the environment will increasingly benefit too. And that’s something everyone can celebrate.
The pork industry is under pressure to move to group housing systems, but a successful transition hinges on the right system and the right sows.
The Retail Council of Canada recently announced they won’t source pork from farms using gestation crates by 2022. Members of the Council include Canada Safeway, Co-op Atlantic, Costco Wholesale Canada, Federated Co-operatives, Loblaw Companies Limited, Metro Inc., Wal-Mart Canada, and Sobeys Inc.
But sows naturally form hierarchies and compete for resources if they think those resources are limited, according to Ontario Pork’s website. So for group housing to work, the facility needs to be designed to minimize competition for food, water, and resting places. Otherwise sows could fight for resources, leading to injuries, poor body condition, and reproductive failure due to stress, writes Dr. Kim Bunter.
A research project sequencing DNA from influential beef bulls is a tremendous opportunity for the industry, says a beef producer.
“Basically at very little or no cost to (breed) associations, very little cost to members, there’s potential for huge benefits out of it,” says Sean McGrath. McGrath ranches near Vermilion, Alberta, and is coordinating the Angus part of the project.
The technology identifies cattle with a high, average, and low immune response. Cows with a high immune response do a better job of fighting off pathogens and have a more balanced immune response. Selecting cows with a high immune response not only cuts disease levels and costs, but improves the herd’s vaccination response.
Dairy cows with horns have long been a safety hazard to farmers and walkers which is why so many farmers burn off the horn buds on calves. That procedure is difficult and unpleasant for the farmers and intensely painful for the animals. But the alternative is to see death or harm come to human handlers and other cows. However, researchers think they know the way to suppress horn growth without doing any procedure to the animal after conception. Such an achievement would be cheered as much by the cows as by the farmers.
In this video, a dairy farmer explains in detail why dehorning is necessary and how it is commonly done today.
"The worst thing is the pain for the calf once the anesthetic wears off,” said Mansel Raymond, a farmer and chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Dairy board for England and Wales in an article in The Telegraph.
Amputating horns from full grown cattle isn’t any kinder or gentler. Indeed, it is often more dangerous to both the farmer and the animal.
It is important to remember that cattle are among the most dangerous of all livestock in terms of the number of humans and animals that are hurt or killed annually in every country. Dehorning is not a matter of convenience in handling, nor a malicious act on the part of the human handlers. It is simply a necessity to ensure the safety of all concerned, including the animals that are being dehorned as they could otherwise harm themselves or each other.
Researchers think the more humane way, and the more efficient means, to eradicate horn growth is to genetically suppress it in the animals’ genetic code. While this sounds like a simple, no-nonsense maneuver, it actually involves a new form of genetic engineering.
While researchers have been able to suppress horn growth in other breeds, such efforts have failed in dairy cows since they also suppress milk yields. But researchers in the U.K. are hard at work to perfect the technique and protect milk production. They are working closely with Scott Fahrenkrug, professor of genetics at the University of Minnesota, who is experimenting with a similar technique on Holsteins in the U.S.
Fahrenkrug has inserted horn suppressing DNA from the genome of Red Angus cattle into cells taken from a prime Holstein bull named Randy. He then plans to use cloning technology to turn the modified cells into embryos and implant them in surrogate mothers. The birthed animals will be clones of Randy without horns but their offspring should be hornless too.
If the genetic modification works, dehorning will no longer be necessary. Both animal and mankind will welcome the news.
Researchers in the U.K. are using genetic engineering to develop resistance to African Swine Fever in domestic pigs.
African Swine Fever is found in wild pigs in Africa, but they have developed tolerance to the disease. But some strains can wipe out domestic pigs, as well as wild pigs in Europe and North America. The virus can survive in processed meat (but isn’t a human health risk), as well as on clothes, livestock feed, and equipment.
African Swine Fever has not been found in Canada.
Scientists with the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, which was the birthplace of Dolly the cloned sheep, used a new gene-editing technique on a male piglet, dubbed Pig 26.
As I write this week’s blog post, I am distracted by the view from my picture window– fluffy snowflakes falling–and I am resigning myself to several more days of winter (the long-term forecast is ugly).Many farmers must be worried about seeding by now, and livestock producers are struggling with the weather as well.
Genomics has fundamentally changed the dairy industry, and will eventually transform other livestock industries, says a genetics specialist.
But when it comes to beef, “it’s more of a challenge to recognize benefits of genomics than some thought. Three years ago, I thought we’d be in a completely different place than we are today with beef genomics. I now understand why,” says Mike McMorris.
The question of whether or not antibiotic use in livestock leads to antibiotic resistant infections in humans led to a dust-up that has lasted for decades. Until this year the issue was clouded by a lack of substantiated proof either way. But now researchers at the University of Cambridge have used whole genome sequencing (WGS) to investigate the matter and the answer they found was yes, the bacteria can be transmitted between animal and man.
It’s not that anyone questioned that antibiotic resistant bacteria developed on farms, for that has been known for ages. Instead the debate centered on whether the evolved bacteria could and did cross from farm animals to humans.
Until now, tracking the bacteria path has been precarious at best since it came loaded with too many variables to come to a definite conclusion.
At stake are human lives on the one end and on the other the agricultural industry’s need to provide more food, faster and safer. In other words, reducing antibiotic use in livestock could potentially curb the rise of antibiotic resistant disease in humans. But, reducing antibiotic use in livestock could diminish the food supply, or render it unsafe, at a time when the need for food is growing exponentially.
The answer to the question then, no matter which way it went, was bound to essentially be bad news.
Nonetheless, an answer is needed before anyone can set about the business of finding an actual solution.
The researchers found two infected women in Denmark where human cases of the antibiotic resistant staph known as MRSA are exceedingly rare. Both women owned livestock. The first owned two horses and two cows; the other owned a small flock of sheep. The researchers found that one cow and three of the sheep carried the strain. Whole genome sequencing directly tied the infected animals to their respective owners.
It wasn’t just the fact that the isolates between each farmer and animal were functionally identical that convinced the researchers to reach the conclusion that the disease had indeed spread from animal to human. The ultimate deciding factor came from the third sheep’s strain that varied slightly both from the strain in the other sheep and from that in the woman thus showing the disease had changed in order to make the species leap.
Now, arguments can be made that the study’s findings may be flawed in that the MRSA strain found in the study is not the standard form and therefore may not apply to the transmission of the standard or other strains; there were only two cases studied so the findings may not hold true across a larger sampling; and, that the two women did not dose their animals with antibiotics and yet the disease evolved and transmitted to the women anyway.
Nonetheless, whole gene sequencing did provide the means to accurately and directly track the bacteria path. And that in itself is nothing short of miraculous.
For more information on how antibiotic resistant bacteria comes into existence, take a look at this short video…
Last Friday the federal government announced they were investing over $1 million to help the Canadian Livestock Genetics Association build demand for Canadian livestock genetics internationally.
The investment, which is funneled through the Growing Forward program, will help the association market dairy and small-ruminant genetics. The association plans to regain and expand into markets for live cattle, semen and embryos, and promote its genetic evaluation and dairy cattle improvement programs. The Canadian Livestock Genetics Association will do this by leading trade missions, developing and evaluating new markets, participating in trade advocacy meetings, and delivering seminars.
“Live animals may have potential in one market while semen and/or embryos might be the focus in others,” Rick McRonald, executive director of the association, writes via email.
Genome Canada projects looking at pig and cattle genomics focus not only on DNA, but also public perceptions around such science. And though that may seem strange to some of us at first glance, it’s a vital research goal.
You only need to look at the European public’s response to transgenic crop research to understand how important it is to get citizens on science’s side. A Discovery Magazine article published on Wednesday highlights this all too well (read it here www.discovermagazine.com/2013/april/16-seeds-of-conflict#.UUNnj1fxfvk)
United States researchers are working to link data on piglet colostrum consumption to regions on the pig genome responsible for nursing and colostrum production.
As any livestock producer knows, colostrum consumption is vital to a newborn animal’s survival. The National Hog Farmer article states that up to 20 per cent of piglets die before weaning. Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food puts that number at 12 to 15 per cent. Of those deaths, 85 per cent happen in the first three days of the piglets’ lives. Though most of those deaths can be attributed to trauma, the ministry suggests maximizing colostrum intake, including for weak piglets.
Beef producers have historically not been fond of twin births. This seems counterintuitive to some who would think the bonus calf a good thing. But there are reasons twin births give pause to a farmer ranging from high failed pregnancy rates to heifers born infertile. Despite these problems, Brian Kirkpatrick, UW-Madison professor of animal science, says his genetic research into the management of twinning will turn the tide from double trouble to doubled profits.
For a complete view of the problems twin calves present, take a look at the video below produced by Oklahoma State University.
Kirkpatrick has been dreaming of all the cows in any herd giving birth to twins for some 20 years – ever since he was a kid growing up on a farm in eastern Iowa. He went into research with that goal in mind and a clear, farm-bred understanding of the problems associated with twins.
He is working on not only identifying the gene that has the biggest effect on ovulation rate, but also on how to genetically capture efficiencies in multiple birthing. He is patiently sorting out the genes associated with positive economic outcomes for twinning such as identifying cows that can maintain twins throughout a normal pregnancy and labor, and calves with high survivability and positive market traits.
His work has thus far taken over two decades and will require still more time before it reaches fruition.
“My hope is that in another ten years we’ll have some basic information about genetics that relate to success in carrying twins to term so that, for the beef cattle industry, the twinning would not be viewed as a negative but as something that would be a positive and that, perhaps we would have more uptake of twinning,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview with The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison News.
And, he admits he’ll have to overcome current attitudes to see the results of his work adopted once he has finished. Most beef farmers today are skeptical that twinning will ever be truly profitable.
“There are some people right now in the beef cattle industry who are trying to use twinning in beef cattle production but they’re a definite minority,” he added in that interview. You can hear the entire interview on a university podcast here.
But for some, Kirkpatrick’s promising work is yet another advance towards feeding a burgeoning human population in an efficient way and quickly increase profits for beef producers too. What farmer wouldn’t want to double his birthing rate every season especially if you can do it without doubling your troubles?
Researchers with the Canadian Cattle Genome Project are developing low cost genotyping tools to help cattle producers pick breeding animals with desirable, but difficult to select for, traits.
Cattle producers will be able to use the tools to genotype potential breeding stock at a very young age, says Mary De Pauw, project manager.
“Then we can check with the genotypes to get information about how that animal might perform in the future. So it saves them a lot of time and money. They don’t have to wait until the animal is older in order to decide whether they want to keep it in their breeding program.”
Livestock producers, researchers, and others in the industry are forever battling diseases that sicken animals and cost producers. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) is always near the top of the pork industry’s agenda. This week, we’ll take stock of PRRS research and related developments in North America.
Agriculture Canada researchers, in collaboration with scientists in France, have found soil bacteria that can break down and consume a commonly used veterinary antibiotic.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers were motivated by concerns around antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic use in agriculture has been making the headlines over the years in Canada and abroad. The European Union doesn’t allow the agriculture industry to promote livestock growth with antibiotics. Just yesterday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, reacting to a USDA report on antibiotic resistance and agriculture, said the United States is standing on the brink of a public health catastrophe.
As every dairy farmer knows already, the disease incidence in dairy cattle is on the rise. Farmers generally deal with the problem through various management practices and costly aid from veterinarians but these efforts appear to be ineffectual in slowing the number and severity of occurrences. However, there may be a way to turn this situation around and cut treatment costs too via a new genetic technology, called High Immune Response (HIR).
Essentially the technology is a testing procedure and management tool to identify animals with high immune response traits; breeding High Immune Responder individuals then leads to the pronouncement of the traits and thus healthier offspring that tend to stay healthy. In addition, trials show that these animals respond better to vaccines and produce higher quality colostrum.
Many benefits are touted by the developers and by Semex, which has exclusive rights to the technology for the next decade, including lower vet bills and higher production. The conservative estimates of the financial benefit of a High Immune Responder cow versus a Low Immune Responder cow is $124 a year. HIR also has appeal as a natural alternative to widespread antibiotic use in livestock – an issue of heightened interest given increasing regulations worldwide to stem routine antibiotic use.
Research conducted in the U.S. on some 700 cows found that HIR curbed mastitis by 27%, and that one group of HIR cows had no cases of mastitis after 220 days and counting in milk. It also found a 17% reduction in metritis and 32% reduction in retained placenta incidents. Other studies found as much as 50% reduction in diseases.
Professor Bonnie Mallard in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario is the scientist behind the development of HIR. She spoke this month at the 2013 SEMEX Dairy Conference saying that HIR could reduce disease by as much as 4% to 8%, and reduce treatment costs by £50 per cow per generation. According to Farming Life, that is “equivalent to the amount gained from production related genetic improvement. The heritability of immune genetics at 25% is similar to that for milk production traits, and far higher than those for longevity (8-10%), calving ease (6-7%), daughter fertility (4-7%) and mastitis (10%).”
If you want to know all the scientific particulars, then you’ll be interested in Mallard’s paper on HIR. If you prefer a quick overview, take a look at the short video below.
Mallard says her next step is to confirm the health of the daughters of HIR sires and implement further genomic studies in HIR technology.
Cattle with lower residual feed intakes gain as much weight as their bovine friends with less feed, making it a more economical trait straight weight gain or feed conversion. Basarab and his colleagues studied the progeny performance of three feed efficient and three feed inefficient bulls at Three Cross Ranch in Alberta.The progeny all went to the feedlot and through to the packers. The efficient bulls’ progeny saved $10 to $15 per head in feed costs, and had the same weight gain as the big eaters.
The federal government is investing over $575,000 in Delta Genomics Centre to help provide genomic technology to the beef industry.
Delta Genomics Centre is an arm of Livestock Gentec. The non-profit provides genotyping, bio-banking, and sequencing services to researchers and the livestock industry. They can also conduct research on a contract basis for livestock producers.
The centre will use the funding to collect and analyze samples from cattle for SNP testing. Canadian breed associations will be able to use the results to offer more accurate, more affordable, and less time-consuming genetic profiling tools. Feedlot owners and processors may be able to use the technology in the future to identify animals with superior meat qualities.
The pork industry is kicking off 2013 with the Banff Pork Seminar, slated for January 15th to 17th. Considering the challenges the industry has faced in the last year, they’ll have plenty to discuss, especially in the Boar Pit.
Organizers bill the conference as a mix of big-picture thinking and practical take-home information, covering a wide range of topics related to the industry’s profitability. Looking through the sessions, it’s clear that they will address many of the challenges the industry faces.
In a bid for a new and better way to farm, one farmer thinks teaming with biohackers just may be the perfect route to true innovation.
Phil Cruver, president and CEO of KZO Sea Farms, a social entrepreneur, founder of four start-up companies, and CEO of two public companies previously, is openly and loudly broadcasting his invite to biohackers to help him innovate forward.
“We are interested in connecting with biohackers who would share our vision for creating bio-engineered shellfish for feeding the future in a Brave New World,” he told me.
Granted Cruver is an aquafarmer, not a livestock farmer, but innovation via biohacking applies equally to all forms of farming and therefore it is likely that livestock farmers are dabbling in it too or soon will be.
It’s an interesting concept this old school meets new school approach to one of mankind’s oldest professions.
Biohacking is as cutting edge as it gets. Consider it the blade horizon, so to speak, where the old way of doing things get sliced and diced while new ways are julienned into existence. Disruption seems too bland a word for the upheaval biohacking is bringing to even the most traditional and mature endeavors.
For a better understanding of how biohackers are hacking DNA (hence the term “biohacking”), watch the video, “Hacking DNA: Compiling code for living systems” from a biohacking camp held last year called CCCamp 2011 ….
Cruver, excited over the recent sequencing of the Pacific oyster genome, is looking to biohacking as a means to speed the development of sterile super shellfish. There has been some promising work in this regard but mostly in venues with traditional drawbacks, namely high costs and innovation-stifling regulatory compliance requirements. Biohackers, by comparison, have few drawbacks and are incredibly quick at creating far cheaper and faster ways of doing just about anything.
Cruver, while proudly seeking organic status for his first offshore shellfish farm in federal waters, is open to suggestions from biohackers on how to improve shellfish farming further in a completely green, socially responsible, and profitable way.
At the moment, sterile super shellfish are the preferred aqua-farming choice. They are triploids meaning they have three sets of chromosomes whereas nature’s diploids have just two sets of chromosomes. Triploids do not grow gonads and therefore grow faster and bigger and are edible all year. By contrast diploids produce sperm and eggs in the summer months making them poor eating, either from the less than tasty gonads or the watery after-spawning spoils.
Farming triploids means more meat per shellfish and protein availability all year with which to feed the world’s population. But Cruver asks “what else can we do?” It is a question all farmers everywhere are asking. It will be interesting to see how biohackers answer that.
The year is nearly over and fortunately, despite some paranoid predictions, our world is not ending with the Mayan calendar. As 2012 draws to a close, it’s a good time to think about some of the big stories in genomics that came out this year.
The beef industry is far more efficient at producing meat than it was thirty years ago. But genomics research may be able to help the industry do even better.
By 2007, the beef industry was producing 128 per cent more meat per animal than they did in 1977. The industry today uses substantially fewer resources to produce one pound of beef–81 per cent of the feed, 86 per cent of the water, and 66 per cent of the land. Producing one pound of beef also produces less manure, nitrogen, methane and nitrous oxide than 30 years ago. Dr. J.L. Capper, an associate professor of animal science at Washington State University, credits technology and improved genetics with the changes.
But the rising global population is pressuring food producers to boost production even more, and the beef industry is no exception.
As the United Kingdom struggles to control a bovine tuberculosis outbreak spread by badgers, it’s clear science is needed to help balance food production and environmental protection.
Between January 2012 and June 2012, over 18,000 cattle were slaughtered to control tuberculosis. But since the disease infects badgers as well, slaughtering and restocking cattle won’t be enough to eliminate the disease.
According to Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers and collaborators, today’s turkey isn’t the same animal that earlier generations ate in the same holiday celebrations.
“Few people know that the commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving and Christmas descended from Mexico, where they were discovered during the Spanish Conquest and transported to Europe,” said Julie Long, senior author of the study and research physiologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, in a press statement.
“During the next 100 years, Europeans created many different varieties of the domesticated turkey,” she said. “It’s important to assess the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys in the event that some unforeseen problem might threaten the stability of the commercial turkey lines.”
The results of their study was published in BMC Genomics, but the bottom line is that the current commercialized turkey is genetically distinct from the wild Mexican turkey from which it came, and that today’s turkey has the least genetic variation of any other livestock on farms now.
Today’s turkey also has less genetic variation than its Mexican forbearer, but such is similar to findings in other domesticated species.
To do the comparative genetic study, researchers sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and three South Mexican turkeys collected in 1899. The ancient turkey samples came from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History specimens. The researchers say that DNA was extracted in Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s (SCBI) ancient DNA lab at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
“It is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of variation,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “What did surprise us, however, is how well the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and structure. These data and this approach show great promise for determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey domestication.”
So what genes did early turkey breeders look to promote in turkeys? The same ones turkey breeders today covet: larger birds with big, meaty breasts.
“Ancient turkeys weren’t your Butterball,” said Fleischer.
One other important point is underscored by this study: genetic manipulation has always been the route to better our food supply since the beginning of farming. The tools may have changed over time, but the goal has not.
That question, to one degree or another, assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat: call it the omnivore’s dilemma. The koala bear certainly doesn’t worry about what’s for dinner; if it looks and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, then it is dinner. His culinary preferences are hard-wired. But for omnivores like us, a vast amount of brain space and time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes nature offers are safe to eat.”
If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (and I recommend you do), you’ll be familiar with the concept above. If you’re thinking that it doesn’t sound like much of a dilemma at all, keep reading. I think I can show you part of the reason why North Americans are increasingly anxious about their food, and how this affects the entire agriculture industry, from farmers to researchers to food companies.
First of all, let me tell you about the time I nearly killed my mother with organic quinoa.
Canadian Western Agribition is known internationally as a place to source quality cattle genetics. Though hundreds of international buyers visit Agribition each year, organizers are working to bring even more cattle buyers to the show.
“Agribition has always attracted its fair share of international business. But this year, and for the first time, Agribition has an incoming buyers program to help bring buyers from around the world to Regina and to help those buyers connect with sellers,” said Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Agriculture.
Both the Saskatchewan and federal government, along with the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, are supporting the program.
“We have a very mature program already. We just have this add-on that makes it a complete package,” said Marty Seymour, CEO of Canadian Western Agribition.
Earlier this week, researchers released their results from a pig genome sequencing project. And if you’re wondering if this could lead to even better bacon, you won’t be disappointed.
As a bacon-lover, I find it hard to believe bacon could be any tastier. But tenderness, fat content, and meat colour are all priorities for the pork industry. And now that the International Swine Genome Sequencing Consortium has released its pig genome analysis, pinpointing genes linked to scrumptiousness is closer to reality.
But, even more important than better bacon, is healthier pigs.
Dr. Susan Markus, a beef research scientist with Alberta Agriculture, said that genomics researchers try to solve practical problems in the beef industry by studying links between an animal’s genetics and desirable traits.
Considerable effort has gone into genetic modification to improve livestock in countless ways. As is the case with all budding technologies, the results have sometimes been mixed, often unpredictable, and occasionally even surprising. But with practice comes perfection eventually and while scientists are still far from possessing perfected techniques, they are getting better in practice. Two animals in particular are pointing to increased accuracy in genetic engineering with undoubtedly more to come.
The first of the two is a cow named Daisy that produces allergen-free milk. Specifically the milk lacks an allergy-inducing protein, beta-lactoglobulin, which is responsible for causing problematic and dangerous diarrhea and vomiting in children. Human milk does not contain the protein which is one of a gazillion reasons human milk is better for children and babes than cow’s milk. The problem is that human milk is not available to all children for numerous reasons making cow’s milk a necessity in infant survival especially.
To combat this problem and deliver a more child-friendly meal, scientists in Japan have modified cows to produce actual human breast milk. While this program is a success, at least as of this writing, there is some public resistance to it given the mixing of genes from different species. It’s not so much an ick! factor as it is a general uneasiness with mixing species who cannot naturally breed with one another.
People begin to envision all sorts of things from scifi horror flicks to a punishing Armageddon for “playing God” rather than thoughtfully consider the evidence and the effects on human survival. To be fair though, it will be years before scientists can determine the effects on humans of ingesting the human breast milk from a decidedly inhuman cow.
Daisy the cow, however, is more akin in public perception to using insulin from pigs to treat diabetes in humans. It’s true that it is more common now to use synthetic insulin, another genetic engineering breakthrough, but it is undeniable that the successful treatment began by using pancreas tissue from pigs. In other words, the public was generally happy with early insulin production because the pig remained a pig and the human remained human. Had the pig started secreting human insulin, people would have flipped out over it.
It is interesting that the public sees synthetic insulin as more akin to plastic, i.e. something manufactured and not related to living organisms, when in truth insulin is biosynthetically produced using recombinant DNA technology, aka genetic engineering. But I digress on the mysterious workings of public perception.
This is not to say that increasing accuracy in turning on or off any given trait will meet with an entirely warm and approving public embrace. Case in point: There are groups in New Zealand that claim Daisy’s modification is abusive and they fear that the rest of the world may not want to buy New Zealand’s milk in support of any affected animals. Never mind that Daisy is in perfect health and in no pain at all.
The second animal showing increased accuracy in genetic engineering is an unnamed pig with a bad case of hardening of the arteries. TALENs, enzymes that target and cut out specific DNA sequences from genomes, were used to disrupt the pig’s genetic coding of its low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptors. Without the receptors, the pig can’t remove LDL from its blood stream and atherosclerosis ensues. It is the hope of biomedical researchers that the pig will be a reliable model on which to study both the condition and possible cures in humans.
“The TALEN technology is staggeringly easy, quick, and leaves no mark in the genome,” said Bruce Whitelaw, a molecular biologist at the Roslin Institute in the UK, who contributed to the work in pigs in an article in Nature. “In essence, we are just mimicking an evolutionary process with precise, man-made editors.”
“I’d be exaggerating if I said that pigs and cows can now be thought of as big mice, but we are moving in that direction,” said Heiner Niemann, a bioengineer at the Institute of Farm Animal Genetics in Neustadt, Germany in that same Nature article.
While such a transition in medical research is unlikely to meet with approval among animal activists, animal models are still the best means for researchers to find cures and treatments for a wide number of human ailments. There simply is insufficient data to use computer modeling alone, meanwhile millions of people die of heart disease everyday. Thankfully, the advent of big data and high performance computing may lessen or eradicate the need for animal modeling soon.
The bottom line is a hopeful one. Genetic engineering is becoming far more accurate with each passing day and with that increased accuracy comes a plethora of benefits ranging from medical cures to a plentiful food supply and things yet imagined.
Imagine cutting into a medium-rare steak. As you taste the first bite, you realize the cut is not beef, but pork. Pork that has been undercooked and, to make matters worse, has been injected with red dye to help it pass as beef.
As Swedish officials unravel the scam’s origins, the need for traceability in a global food system is clear. Not only does it help resolve food recalls more quickly, it can provide proof to consumers that they’re getting what they paid for.
But in truth, globalization has made the notion of “local” foods little more than a quaint and distant notion. Even food raised, picked, slaughtered, and produced locally are likely to be handled by an international workforce, many of whom are temporary foreign workers (TFWs) from the poorest countries around the globe. This pattern exists worldwide and should not be used to disparage or harm any of these workers who are only looking to feed their families too.
Instead, people must understand that cutting production costs to the bone only leads to rot and disease in the meat of the food chain.
If food producers are going to continue to consolidate into a handful of behemoth plants with high-pressure production quotas and a workforce that neither possesses a common language nor uniform training, then disease outbreak will be a continuing result. And this is true in every country in the world.
Couple all that with the dove-tailing of the world’s food supply so that no country is entirely sure of -- or is inordinately delayed in finding -- where any given food originated or was processed, and the threat to human safety grows exponentially.
So what is to be done to shore up food safety globally in an ever frenzied globalized supply chain? Genomics looks to be the most promising answer but that effort too requires a global collaborative effort.
The need for this project is certainly underscored by the Alberta outbreak but it was actually first highlighted by the E. coli 0104 outbreaks in Europe wherein a chimeric genome (consisting of two types of organisms in a single entity) created more human harm than either of the two types would have created alone.
Effectively dealing with such organisms means rapidly discovering their existence in the first place and accurately and quickly tracking the source through multiple ingredients in packaged foods from a variety of producers and back even to originating farms.
There are other groups hard at work to the same end. A Winnipeg lab is using advanced surveillance systems and genomics to attempt to track outbreaks in real time. The National Microbiology Lab (NML), part of the Public Health Agency of Canada, believes that DNA fingerprinting of pathogens is essential to solving food supply threats in the shortest possible timeframe.
“We report on a real-time or as close to real-time basis as we possibly can,” said Dr. Matthew Gilmour of the National Microbiology Laboratory, Winnipeg in a National Research Council Canada article. “If there is a contaminated food product on the shelf, responding in six months is pointless.”
And that is, of course, the bottom line. Genomics are our best shot at finding foodborne illnesses before people get sick and even die. But there is another benefit too. If such efforts succeed, then beef producers can also recover far faster too.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has allowed XL Foods to partially reopen and Brian Nilsson, XL’s co-chief executive officer, has promised to improve food safety at the plant. Over the last few weeks the media has shone a spotlight on everything from government policy to industry accountability in food safety. Scientists and journalists have also been discussing the possible role technologies such as irradiation and E. coli vaccines.
One food safety tool that may have a very bright future can be found in cow’s digestive system, preying on E. coli 0157.
Bacteriophages are viruses that prey on specific bacteria, including E. coli 0157. Each time a phage bursts an E. coli cell, it produces 200 or 300 more phages.
“If they come in contact with E. coli 0157, they’ll kill it,” says Tim McAllister, microbiologist with Agriculture Canada.
The beef recall is expanding, and so is consumer and industry concern. When you read about genomics, food safety probably isn’t the first word that pops into your head. However, researchers across North America are working on DNA traceability and food safety projects.
Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta, is part of a team looking at using DNA to improve ground meat product traceability.
“The idea is that if there is a problem, that we could use this technology to narrow down the window where the contamination has occurred,” Plastow said.
“Hot and hairy” dairy heifers may not sound like much of a complaint but to agribusiness experts the genetic defect is serious business. The defect causes dangerous heifer overheating, poor milking as the animal ages, and an over-hairy beast. A bull named Matrix owned by New Zealand-based Livestock Improvement (LIC) is responsible for passing the defective gene to 1500 calves on some 900 farms.
LIC, a farmer-owned cooperative that sells bull semen and operates a dairy genetics database, has advised farmers to “get rid of” the heifers carrying the mutation and has offered a free DNA examination to definitely identify affected calves. LIC has also offered a semen credit to farmers with affected or unaffected calves from the bull Matrix. While LIC stands by its earlier decision that “compensation is not appropriate,” farmers are weighing their legal options in light of LIC’s “DNA proven” sales claim.
“DNA proven” points to an animal’s breeding merits based on its own DNA or genomics whereas the more traditional “daughter proven” method assesses an animal’s breeding merits based on three years of progeny.
Meanwhile Wagyu (aka as Kobe) cattle farmers are battling widespread brand counterfeiting by introducing a strong genetic testing and certification initiative. Several top breeders say that more than 90% of beef sold as Wagyu is actually from hybrid cattle or other breeds. They claim that some restaurants and butchers around the globe are purposefully swapping cheaper meats while collecting higher Wagyu prices.
It is the breeders’ hope that the new accreditation system will protect both farmers and consumers worldwide from unscrupulous practices by middlemen. To that end, the Australian Wagyu Association is developing a new genome test that will provide a precise measurement of wagyu content from the animal’s DNA. Graham Truscott, CEO of the association, confirmed in an interview with Stock and Land that the new accreditation system will be implemented within the next 12 months.
An emerging middle class and sheer numbers are driving the rapid growth of China’s dairy industry, says an industry source.
“In China, they are driven to produce quality food, (ensure) stability of food, and plan for the future,” says David Chalack, president of Rocky Mountain Holsteins.
Canada has a long history of supplying China with dairy genetics, including live animals, semen, and embryos, but the border has been closed to live cattle since BSE hit Canada. Currently China is buying most of its live dairy cattle from Australia, but China’s need for quality dairy genetics is exhausting Australia’s supply.
“We have a reasonable number of markets that are open for live cattle from Canada, subsequent to the cleanup of the BSE issues…And we actually have a limited supply of product. And so the fact that it’s open is important,” says Dr. David Chalack, president of Rocky Mountain Holsteins Inc. Chalack is also involved with the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, Alta Genetics Inc., the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Livestock Genomics, and several other organizations.
Western Canadian researchers and veterinarians are working together to help Alberta achieve PRRS-free status.
Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) is one of the most important diseases the swine industry is trying to combat. Robert Harding, executive director of the Canadian Swine Health Board, puts national PRRS costs at $130 million each year. PRRS also threatens the ability of Alberta producers to export to PRRS-free markets.
While most geneticists around the world aim to produce drought-resistant livestock that can survive the spread and prolonged drought periods threatening the food supply globally, Chinese geneticists are racing to radically improve product output. Two of their more interesting efforts are in modifying cattle to produce human breast milk and perfect, tasty steaks that would rival even Japan’s famous and ultra-tender wagyu, aka Kobe, beef.
While the two end goals seem radically different, the approach to each is actually very similar. The effort to make dairy cows produce human breast milk involves transgenics, i.e. the insertion of human genes to add enzymes and proteins unique to human breast milk to the milk of domesticated animals.
China is arguably in the lead on bringing this cow produced human milk to market which is predicted to be available on store shelves sometime in 2014. Meanwhile, other countries are struggling to keep pace. Animal scientists at the University of California-Davis in the U.S. for example are working to produce human breast milk from goats to treat and prevent lethal childhood diarrhea primarily in underdeveloped countries.
While it is difficult to bring these products to market in the Western world, primarily due to a religion-based repulsion to transgenics, China says that the world’s first ethical and ‘pro-life’ duty should be in saving human babies and feeding starving children.
As to producing the perfect steak, China has already produced two calf clones, Jing Qin 1 and 2, both of which have been given an extra gene to increase the fat marbling, and therefore the taste and tenderness, of their meat. Yes, the pursuit of the perfect steak also involves transgenic cows. These cows were given a fatty acid binding protein. Success of the project can’t be determined until the calves mature. But China isn’t standing still waiting on the final taste-test. Scientists there are hard at work on transgenic lambs with a gene from a roundworm which leads to high levels of omega-3 fatty acids usually only found in fish like salmon.
Modern cattle are much more feed and water efficient than their predecessors, yet a cattle genomics project hopes to improve cattle genetics even more.
According to a recent Western Producer article, modern beef cattle consume considerably less feed and water to reach market weight, compared to their predecessors.Efficient animals also release less methane, said John Basarab, feed efficiency researcher with Alberta Agriculture, at the recent World Hereford Conference in Calgary.
“It is about the production of safe, affordable, nutritious and environmentally friendly beef,” Basarab said.
Basarab is also one of the investigators with the Canadian Cattle Genome Project. The project’s researchers are examining genotypes (patterns of genetic markers) on several beef and dairy breeds. The researchers hope to develop “genomic prediction equations” that will help the cattle industry make genetic improvements in Canadian herds.
This week it seems like every time I pick up the phone or go online, I’m discussing or reading about genetically modified organisms.
It started with a conversation about consumer concerns around GMOs. The person I was talking to remarked “the horse has left the barn.”
I certainly think that’s the case in North America, where many of our crops are genetically modified. Most North American consumers have been eating GMO crops and food ingredients for years. Consumers trying to cut out GMO foods would have a hard road ahead of them, I think. They can avoid certain whole foods or cooking oils, but trace GM ingredients are in many processed foods.
As the Mississippi River withers and crops and pastures shrivel across the United States, the agriculture industry is looking for more ways to adapt to drought. Farmers and scientists are testing new varieties of drought-resilient crops, and ranchers are selecting drought-hardy livestock.
Ron Gill, rancher and head of the animal science department at Texas A&M University, said that researchers have been working on breeding traits, such as heat tolerance and production despite poor forage, into cattle for several years. Texas has had below-average rainfall for over 15 years. Last year Texas was struck by severe drought, and some areas are dry again this summer. Texas’ cattle inventory is now just shy of 98 million, the lowest it’s been since 1973.
"We're telling people, ‘Regardless of what you have to buy to restock, your future breeding programs need to target this new normal and re-establish a different paradigm than what we've had in the past,'” Gill told U-T San Diego News.
Calgary, AB - The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is pleased to announce the launch of BeefResearch.ca. This new website is a dynamic, central resource for Canadian beef research news and information. Cow-calf producers, feedlots, veterinarians, meat packers, researchers and other industry stakeholders can visit BeefResearch.ca to stay informed of the latest innovations and access the information needed to make informed decisions.
BeefResearch.ca features information on the industry’s research priorities and objectives, background information on research topics, and technical fact sheets on project results. The site also includes the BCRC Blog, where readers will find the latest research findings, learn how research connects to current events, and benefit from commentary and information from researchers and other industry experts. Readers can subscribe to the blog for email updates and join the conversation by posting comments on blog articles.
“BeefResearch.ca is needed to improve extension in the beef industry. By creating a central, national resource, getting research information out to producers and the rest of the industry will be more efficient and effective. The website also demonstrates and promotes the value of beef research and innovation,” said Matt Bowman, Chair of the BCRC and a producer from Thornloe, Ontario.
BeefResearch.ca is a key tool in BCRC’s long-term strategy to improve technology transfer and knowledge dissemination within the Canadian beef cattle industry. The strategy’s mandate is to enable industry uptake of research-supported innovations by supporting and delivering a range of best practice technology transfer mechanisms. The initiative is part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster.
BeefResearch.ca will continue to develop as a comprehensive resource for beef research information. The BCRC is focused on developing targeted decision tools and other resources for producers interested in modifying their production practices, and for researchers and other extension groups to support their technology transfer and knowledge dissemination efforts. Currently, the website features research project results from studies that were funded by the BCRC. In time, fact sheets on any project related to beef or beef cattle will be posted, regardless of the funder.
“We encourage people to share their feedback with us and comment on the blog articles so that we know what kinds of information people are looking for,” said Bowman. “As time goes on and the
website evolves, we’ll be able to deliver the types of information people want in the format they want it so they have the knowledge to do what’s best for their operation.”
The BCRC is Canada’s industry-led funding agency for beef research. The BCRC is funded through a portion of the producer-paid national levy as well as government funding, and is led by a committee of beef producers from across the country. The BCRC’s mandate is to determine research and development priorities for the Canadian beef cattle industry and to administer national check-off funds allocated to research. It operates as a division of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
Nonetheless, the marked U.S. public shift in support of science, coupled with other pro-science support efforts around the world such as the scientists “Death of Evidence” rally in Canada, may ultimately lead to a green light for significant funding increases in public research and open the door for serious advancements in agriculture worldwide.
It is unfortunate that it took a widespread drought and the subsequent shortage of food, the very event agricultural producers have warned about for decades, to bring the majority of the public around to the logical conclusion. But alas, here we are. Perhaps the best thing to do from this point is to “make hay while the sun shines.”
Each year there are nearly 50 million cases of food poisoning in the United States, according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) press release. The FDA has teamed up with several organizations to create a database that will help public officials handle such outbreaks more efficiently.
The initiative has been named the 100K Genome Project. Over the next five years, researchers will sequence the genomes of about 100,000 foodborne pathogens, including salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. The information will be available in a public database.
“This important project will harness the cutting-edge technology of genome sequencing to advance our understanding of and response to foodborne outbreaks,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., in the press release. “FDA is pleased to contribute scientific and technical expertise necessary to create and maintain this foodborne pathogen database which will be fully accessible and have long-lasting impact on protecting public health.”
Chinese scientists have genetically modifying dairy cows to produce milk with different properties, the U.K.’s Daily Mail reports. Their accomplishments so far include:
Creating a cow with milk rich in omega-3 fats by inserting bacteria genes into her DNA.
Creating a calf that will give low-lactose milk.
Creating 300 dairy cattle that produce milk with the same nutrients and fat content as human breast milk, with the hopes that the cows could provide an alternative to formula. They did this by inserting human genes into the cows. Yes, you read that right.
“Cattle with the best genetics appear to be the most susceptible to acute interstitial pneumonia (AIP),” says Scott MacGregor, a consulting feedyard veterinarian, in a recent Beef magazine article. MacGregor goes on to say that, while the cause of the often fatal disease is still unknown, it tends to appear in the “high-quality, high-performing, big-eating cattle.” Does this mean that all the careful genetic work done in years past has led to naught? No, it just means there is more work yet to be done.
While the disease tends to prefer the best livestock, it is not limited to the genetically superior individuals. The disease has been the bane of farmers for decades, long before the genetic breakthroughs and techniques in use today came to be. Indeed, according to the report in Beef, as far back as 1979, veterinarians at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Ontario noted the disease had been observed in cattle for many years.
What this seems to indicate is that genetic manipulation of livestock, both naturally and artificially, has not worsened the problem but rather has yet to address it.
A look at private sector investment trends in recent years sheds a bit of light on why genetic research to address animal disease resistance is progressing so slowly.
The good news is that private sector investments in ag research and development is on the rise; it increased by over 40% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1994, moving from $5.6 billion to $11 billion in 2010. The bad news is that “R&D spending in the animal-related inputs remain essentially flat” according to a recent USDA Economic Research Service study.
The overriding problem of the seemingly lack of interest in animal genetics is that “firms supplying inputs to the agricultural sector invest in R&D to develop or improve their products with the aim of increasing or maintaining sales and earning a profit.” Translated that means there are products to be sold and profited from in the other agricultural sectors, but nothing much to sell in the animal-related inputs sector.
In other words, a company can sell a sack of seed or feed easier, and often more profitably, than it can develop and sell genetic discoveries. We’ve seen this perfectly understandable problem before in areas such as sequencing the human genome. While the results coming from the genome sequencing industry are hugely profitable for end-users, such as pharmaceutical companies, there’s little payoff for the industry itself.
The public sector, then, becomes the home of the ironically classified “unprofitable” research. Globally, 55% of all ag R&D comes from publicly funded institutions. In 2000, about 60% of total U.S. public agricultural R&D was allocated to research related to plant and animal systems and a similar percentage is found in other high-income countries.
Once the public sector lays the groundwork that the private sector needs in order to develop products that will cure or prevent diseases like AIP, farmers will be presented with a wide range of tools to use. This is why it is so important to support public research and private research. The two are complementary and equal parts of any given solution.
So, no, livestock genetics is not the cause of AIP but advances in the field will likely render the cure.
“Anytime we have more markets to sell to, it’s a positive situation,” says Jim Long, president and CEO of Genesus Inc.Genesus produces more purebred pigs than any other company in the world. Long estimates that Genesus flew 37 plane loads of purebred pigs from Canada to various world markets last year. The company also exports some frozen semen. Genesus produces live pigs not only in Canada, but also the United States, Mexico, China, Russia, Spain, and the Czech Republic.
“Sobey’s this year, at the National Farm Animal Care Convention, they said the days of producer-driven initiatives are over. And that’s a pretty strong statement from a major retailer of beef in Canada, saying that ‘We will drive the animal-care initiatives in this country,’” said Schoepp.
Ottawa, Ontario, May 31, 2012 - The Canadian swine industry will benefit from market access to Ukraine, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced today. Effective immediately, the Ukrainian market has been re-opened to Canadian live swine, and opened for the first time to Canadian swine genetics.
"This success demonstrates our Government's commitment to opening as many markets as possible around the world for Canadian products," said Minister Ritz. "The Harper Government will continue to help producers find new and better opportunities to increase revenues at the farm gate, which will create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity in the agriculture industry."
While in Paris for the 80th session of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) last week, Canadian and Ukrainian officials met to discuss export conditions for many products. The Harper Government will build on this momentum by continuing to work closely with Canadian producers and the Ukrainian Government to maintain, open, and improve access for agricultural and food products. In 2011, Canada exported more than $22 million worth of agriculture and food products to Ukraine. Canada and Ukraine are also currently in negotiations towards a free trade agreement.
Ukraine currently imports approximately $4.5 million worth of purebred swine. While live swine were previously exported from Canada to Ukraine, a new export certificate has been negotiated by the two countries to address Ukraine's recently revised import requirements. This access will create an opportunity for Canadian exporters of high-quality Canadian purebred swine to take a share of the Ukrainian market.
For more information, media may contact:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Director of Communications
The Office of the Honourable Gerry Ritz
Grandin is well-known in the agriculture industry for designing more humane livestock handling facilities for packing plants. She’s also designed a welfare auditing system that has led to improvements in the way animals are handles and equipment maintained at abattoirs.
There was a time not so long ago when mapping the human genome seemed a task too huge to even undertake, much less succeed at. Yet humankind did exactly that and mapped genomes of a variety of other species as well. Now with the advent of Big Data scientists can do more with that information than had ever been predicted. And the implications are huge in everything from developing new medicines and hardier crops and disease resistant, high-yield livestock, to creating entirely new food sources and other things yet imagined.
The official definition of Big Data, as far as such goes, is data with “velocity, variety and volume.” More plainly put, Big Data simply means data that is too massive to manage by traditional computing means. It’s data that is measured in petabytes and exabytes rather than mere terabytes. We now have the means to search, use, manipulate, mine, and store Big Data. The tools are widely available and the costs are manageable.
“There’s a firehose of data,” said Cranston, principal investigator of the Open Tree of Life project. “[Over the years] scientists have published tens of thousands of evolutionary trees, but there’s been very little work to connect the dots and put them all together into a single resource.”
The collective results in this new single tree will uncover how 2 million named species are related to one another, where theories collide and clash, and where data holes remain to be filled. This is the first serious attempt to construct the entire Tree of Life and it could not be done without Big Data tools.
In regards to agriculture, Big Data use, be it in this new Tree of Life or in other research, will add granularity to the genetic information already known and thereby perfect genetic modification techniques and efforts. It can also fill in the blanks in our knowledge base and thus lead to new understandings and tools.
Take for example, the current conundrum on the origin of dogs. Repeated studies have falsely identified some dog breeds as ancient and branching close to the family tree at the point of domestication. The flaw in the data primarily comes from failing to account for isolation and the rederivation of breeds. “In fact, the archeological evidence suggests that some of the genetic data [on dogs] cannot be trusted at all,” say the authors of one recent study published in PNAS.
While livestock origins are better known, there is still more to be learned. In any case, Big Data will fuel new advances in livestock genetics that should flow quickly and at greatly reduced costs thereby pushing genetic work ahead by decades. Genetic markers will also likely be refined and their worth increased. But this is just the beginning of what will come from using Big Data. Only time will tell what all we really can discover.
Dr. Roy Berg, the man who brought hybrid vigour to Alberta’s cow herds, passed away last week at the age of 85. Ranchers and others in the agriculture industry should take a moment to remember Berg not only for his intelligence and hard work, but also for the guts he had to stand by his idea.
Hybrid vigour is a widely-accepted concept in the beef industry today. But in the 1950s, purebred herds were the norm for everyone, including commercial cattle operators. Dr. Roy Berg went against the prevailing industry wisdom to change that norm and make cattle herds more productive.
Researchers assembled a group of consumers and evaluated their ability to smell and taste androstenone, the steroid that contributes to boar taint. Consumers tried to detect the steroid’s smell in odour tests, and then assessed the odour and taste of meat that contained androstenone. Researchers found that all the consumers sensitive to the smell had the same genetic variation, which was related to an odour receptor.
Modern cattle are descended from a small herd domesticated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago, according to recent genetics research.
Researchers extracted DNA from domestic cattle bones found at archeological sites. By examining the DNA of ancient and modern cattle, they traced taurine cattle to about 80 female aurochs. Taurine cattle include beef breeds like Herefords and Angus, and dairy breeds like Holsteins.
Manipulating livestock genes has always been central to effective and efficient food production. But as livestock genes are stored, swapped and sold in the global marketplace more than efficient food production is at stake.
For example, China is using U.S. barnyards to super-size its food production, a move that is absolutely necessary to feed the world’s largest population. The days when small scale family farms could adequately feed the Chinese populace are long gone. China, like every other country around the globe, has come to the realization that large consolidated operations using modern Westernized methods are the only way to keep future starvation at bay.
On the other hand, giving China a fast leg up can lead to a U.S. smackdown, say critics. A recent Reuters report says that China is buying millions of U.S. breeding stock “capitalizing on decades of cutting edge agricultural research in America.” But if past behavior is a reliable measure, then it is highly likely that China will bite the hand that feeds it.
”This is, after all, a well-trod path in China's pursuit of efficiency: import a technology or create a joint-venture; learn the best practices; apply those practices at a lower cost than overseas rivals; and emerge as an aggressive competitor in the global market,” writes P.J. Huffstutter and Niu Shuping in the Reuters report.
U.S. barnyards may thus see short-term gains and long-term losses. Western countries and other countries too may also see swelling grain costs as China suddenly ramps up its livestock, primarily pork, production. A sudden shift in an already over-taxed grain supply could ironically create more human hunger.
Meanwhile, other countries are more alarmed at losing the livestock genes unique to the local area. For example, Kenya is building a gene bank at a cost in excess of U.S. $3.6 million to preserve indigenous livestock. A good bit of the concern stems from unfettered genetic material imports which privately held companies in Kenya are rapidly acquiring through the U.S., Netherlands, Finland, and Scotland. Kenya officials fear the unintentional importation of disease and the possibility of extinction of both rare and common breeds as new breeds take their place. The Kenyan government says it will be working towards compliance with the International Food Organization (FAO) Global Plan of Action on Animal genetics Conservation – of which, Kenya is a signatory.
Small farmers in Kenya, however, are enjoying the fruits of new regional and global connectivity in improving their breeding programs. The new Mobile Service iCows, for example, is providing farmers with expert advice while also connecting them with other breeders to broaden their gene choices. The Internet, social networking, and mobile industry may well undercut Kenya’s gene bank program if it doesn’t advance in a timely fashion.
To get a handle on the bigger picture of the effects of global genetic changes in livestock, several efforts are underway to study real-time big data to assess what actions might be needed immediately or at least in the short- and medium- terms.
One such effort is headed by Steve Lombardi, CEO of Real Time Genomics, a San Francisco based firm manned by a small business team and several computer scientists and mathematicians in New Zealand. Lombardi told Bio-IT World that “what RTG wants to create is next-gen genomic analysis. We need to bring the cost (of analysis) down so you can create a whole workflow of value for next-gen sequencing.”
“The RTG team took a new look at the bioinformatics pipeline from the perspective of the ‘big data’ problem. Most of what’s in the pipeline today are point solutions that everyone is trying to connect together,” he continued in the Bio-IT World article. “They took a different approach: they built a core engine that you can apply to any sort of point problem in genome analysis, and build algorithms and solutions based on that engine. The technology just screams!”
There is still work to be done to confirm the RTG process’ biological relevance but such efforts are still very promising.
At the end of the day, one vital point keeps emerging: the more problems we solve, the more we create. It would be extremely helpful if software can be developed to more accurately identify and predict what problems we face before we have to face them. As to the geopolitical problems surrounding the global sharing of genetic material? Those are still very much people problems and will likely remain touchy subjects until the end of time or at least until the end of mankind.
Enviropig was developed over ten years ago as a way to make pork production more environmentally-friendly. Scientists inserted DNA snippets from a mouse and bacteria into a Yorkshire pig genome, allowing the pigs to produce an enzyme called phytase. This enzyme helps the pigs digest plant phosphorus, and leads to a 30 to 65 per cent cut in phosphorus in the manure, potentially leading to less surface water pollution.
DNA technology promises to make food traceability more precise and reliable and boost consumer confidence, according an industry executive.
IdentiGEN’s DNA TraceBack allows the food industry to trace whole muscle cuts from the grocery store shelf to the individual animal. Genetic technology can help processors issue more targeted food safety recalls. Sturgeon Valley Pork, an Alberta processor, uses the technology to assure customers that their products are premium Alberta pork. DNA traceability can also be used for ground meat as long as reference samples from individual carcasses can be collected. But implementing DNA traceability for ground meat produced in large processing plants is more complex.
Groundbreaking Canadian research into improving food safety recalls has implications for both the agriculture industry and the research community.
Researchers wanted to improve food safety recalls, but first they needed a statistical method for estimating the number of cattle that make up one ground beef batch. Basic ecology methods involve capturing wild animals, marking and releasing them, and recapturing them later. By comparing the numbers of new and recaptured individuals, scientists could then estimate population numbers. Using this method, previous research put the number of individuals making up one ground beef batch at 300 to 500.
Epigenetics: the study of heritable changes in gene expression and other genomic functions without altering the underlying DNA sequence.
While controversial, epigenetics does appear to offer potentially significant value to livestock genetic programs. Epigenetic studies show that not all genetic information is in the DNA sequence as a significant portion is found in modifications on the epigenome, particularly in DNA methylation (DNAm). It makes sense that manipulating both DNA and methylation of the epigenomes could add significant value to overall livestock genetics efforts. What doesn’t make sense is that such has yet to be explored on any appreciable scale.
In the scientific article “Epigenetics: A New Challenge in the Post-Genomic Era of Livestock,” author Oscar Gonzalez- Recio, of the Departamento de Mejora Genética Animal, Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria in Madrid, Spain, explains the significance in variations in methylation patterns between individuals, even, if not especially, between those that are genotypically identical and what that can mean to breeders and farmers. The article explains the impact thusly:
“…the environment may affect the methylation pattern of up to three generations cohabiting under the same specific circumstances at a given time t during pregnancy: the productive female, the fetus, and the fetus’ germ cells. Hence, what happens to an animal during its lifetime may have consequences in future generations.”
Certainly the article does a good job in spelling out the science, but this SciShow video serves as excellent (and fun) crib notes, well, on humans, but the same concept applies to farm animals and crops as well.
While epigenetics is increasingly popular in genetic studies of cancer and other human diseases, it has yet to gain much attention in livestock genetic studies although the potential benefits in veterinary medicine alone are enticing. Gonzalez- Recio explains in the article that:
“Farms could use epigenetic information to reduce disease incidence and the use of antibiotics in animal production. Personalized medicine using methylation on DNA is currently carried out on cancer research in humans (Peedicayil, 2008; Gomez and Ingelman-Sundberg, 2009), and seems to be a promising strategy for veterinary medicine as well.”
While some farming operations may be unsettled at the thought that they may need to change the environment not only for the current animals' welfare but for future offspring three generations deep, they can likely see profits exceed the costs of doing so, according to Gonzalez- Recio.
“For instance, animals with concentrate and uni-feed diet systems are expected to be differently methylated than animals in a less intensive system based on a pasture feeding systems. It will be important to detect what practices are associated to favorable methylation patterns that affect disease resistance and other economically important traits.Finding this missing causality would assist in rising animals under favorable circumstances and reduce unfavorable methylation patterns.”
Among those “other economically important traits” are likely to be higher profits for epigenetically "certified" livestock and genetic material sales and improved public relations that can lead to better acceptance of meat products and fewer incidents of animal activist protests.
That is, of course, if anyone actually starts looking hard at epigenetics for livestock. It certainly looks to be the next promising frontier.
A sire evaluation project is yielding promising results for beef producers who want to improve their herds.
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has partnered with IdentiGen Canada Ltd. to study which bulls produce the best calves. In 2010, they began collecting DNA from bulls and calves on two Alberta ranches. The project expanded to include a third ranch in 2011. The DNA linked calves to the bulls, and the early results immediately caught participating ranchers’ interests.
“What we did see right away, and we were told that we would, is bulls that did not sire any calves,” says Jim Hansen, livestock business development specialist with Alberta Agriculture. “They would have passed the semen test, everything would have been good, but they sired no calves.”
“First of all, that’s an exciting result because we didn’t necessarily expect to be able to see such a big impact. Normally, in some of these traits, we expect to see lots of regions of the genome explaining a small amount of variation, and then you have to trap all of them. But in this case, there is…a loci explaining enough variation that it should be interesting to go after that region and select for animals that are less susceptible to PRRS,” says Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec. Plastow is one of the researchers working on the Canadian component of the consortium research.
Canadian Angus cattle carry a tenderness gene more often than international Angus populations, according to a genetics study.
The research came about because of the World Angus Forum, which was held in Calgary in 2009. As part of the forum, registered Angus embryos were brought from Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark and Uruguay, and implanted in Albertan cows. Chelsey Carruthers worked with Dr. Sheila Schmutz to compare the genes of the international Angus to the Canadian population.
“We are sliding back into a dark era,” said Nina Fedoroff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at the 2012 AAAS meeting held in Vancouver in February. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
Fedoroff, one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists, was speaking at an event most noted for its annual unveiling of scientific accomplishments. But instead of the expected introductory speech of ‘We are scientists and here is what we have learned,’ the audience heard what many knew but were loathe to voice. Fedoroff admitted out loud, in public, and in an official capacity that she was “scared to death” of the anti-science movement.
The movement is spreading throughout much of the western world at an alarming rate, primarily among large religious and conservative populations. It is the most powerful in the U.S. where, despite the Obama administration’s friendliness to science, a hoard of Republicans are actually regulating and campaigning on anti-science platforms.
Most notable of the science deniers is Rick Santorum, a GOP presidential candidate who is currently leading in the race. At the Republican party debate in Florida, Santorum declared he should be the presidential candidate for the party because he caught on to the “hoax” of climate change earlier than his opponents. This claim is hotly contested by his opponents not for the obvious error in calling climate change a hoax, but in which of them labeled it such first. Further, the candidates are competing on how fast and hard they can stomp evolution and climate change science out of existence. Worse still, throngs of followers are applauding the demise of science.
Up until recently, scientists believed turning the tide back to logical, critical thinking was a matter of education. The facts, scientists thought, would surely rectify the error in denying scientific findings. But that has not been the case partly because recent educational efforts have lacked the high-visibility of previous efforts such as those done by the patriotism-evoking NASA, and partly because the anti-science movement is attacking education itself.
The anti-science movement is attacking education on many fronts:
by insisting creationism be taught either as a replacement or beside evolution;
by lobbying to defund public education from the earliest grades through college level thereby limiting access to science education;
by thoroughly discrediting acclaimed scientists as alarmists and snake-oil salesmen;
and, by attacking science supporters as “snobs, elitists, and anti-religion.”
If science and the businesses that rely on using the sciences topping the movement’s hit list, e.g. genetic modification and climate change, are to succeed the fight-back must be as coordinated and well-funded as the anti-science movement is. Further, the pro-science efforts must appeal emotionally and not just logically to the man-on-the-street. Pro-science efforts must also protect and promote the value of education in general and not just for science and math. Others believe science defenders should also use fear to drive home the true severity of the problems mankind is facing. You can hear that argument in the video below.
Scientists are just now beginning to realize the behemoth threat in massive organized efforts to “undermine scientific data by people for whom that data represents a threat to their status quo” says Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego and co-author of Merchants of Doubt. “Given the power of these people, scientists will have their work cut out for them.”
But businesses from the agriculture-based to alternative energy producers are going to have to step up and defend science too. If they fail to do so, they can expect to be heavily regulated or their businesses outright banned by those who would use religious dogma as a weapon against commercial competition and/or regulation of their own industries.
Beef producers in the Peace region can learn about applying genomics to their herds at two workshops next week.
Tom Lynch-Staunton of the University of Alberta and Livestock Gentec and John Basarab of the Lacombe Research Station are presenting information on how genomics can improve feed efficiency on the farm.
The first workshop is slated for February 21st in Taylor, B.C. To register, call Chris at 250-789-6885 or 250-793-8916. Grimshaw, A.B. is the site of the second workshop on February 22nd. To register for the second workshop call Nora at 780-836-3354 or email email@example.com.
New research may help pork producers link specific boars to disease susceptibility and congenital defects, such as hernias and retained testicles, in their pigs.
The sheer number of pigs on each farm makes it difficult to track parentage, let alone link health problems to a specific sire. Often the semen of several sires is pooled and sold to commercial pork producers, elevating the task from difficult to impossible. Results from the first phase of a research project show that DNA technology is an effective way to trace lineage.
Wolves have been attacking cattle in North Thompson, an area north of Kamloops, B.C. Brenda Jones, who ranches in the area, reports maimed and dead cattle. Jones says that even uninjured animals are stressed, and calves aren’t gaining as much weight as they should. Her experience is all too common. There is no separating agriculture from nature, and predators are a part of nature.
Does domestication render animals more vulnerable to predators at a genetic level? And can producers select animals that defend themselves against predators, yet allow themselves to be easily handled by humans? A paper written by Temple Grandin and Mark J. Deesing provides some insight into these questions.
Such is mind-boggling since it should be obvious that producing drought- and disease- resistant livestock is a bigger imperative than ever if a booming human population is to be fed through a series of erratic changes in the weather.
This means that genetic modification is of more importance to human survival rates than previously thought. Yet the world’s focus tends to be on organic farming where genetic modification is at best frowned upon and at worst outright banned. Organic farming does indeed have an important role in human survival rates but it cannot be the only answer to the increasingly complex global problem of climate change.
Indeed, such a myopic view may prove devastating to the already shrinking genetic resources in every country of the world. Gene banks can act as a backup to maintaining breeds in the production systems where they were developed. But they can also provide hardier stock for countries where current livestock is not faring well in a suddenly altered environment.
In the journal Science, scientists spell out why it is so hard for food security to gain traction in climate change discussions. But those are not the only reasons. Chief among the resistance are the science-deniers found in big numbers in leading countries like the U.S. Science-deniers fiercely refuse to believe climate change or evolution exist. Further, they actively block the use and large-scale acceptance of the biosciences as a means to address many of man’s food problems.
Perhaps it is time for farmers to stand beside scientists and explain in an earthy way to the people around the world exactly what is happening now to both the weather and food production. Because this is no high-brow, intellectual discussion, nor is it an attack on religious or political values. Food is simply a necessity for all and even the science-deniers will learn that soon enough. It is better for us all if we present a show-and-tell than for nature to do so.
More than 600 delegates from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia are in Alberta this week for the annual Banff Pork Seminar. Delegates have plenty to chew on with this year’s theme, “Feeding Tomorrow’s World.”
One of the plenary session speakers this year is Greg BeVier. BeVier is responsible for livestock grants at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the focus of his talk was livestock production’s role in lifting people out of poverty and hunger.
A new disease prowls European livestock operations.
Schmallenberg virus, named for the town in Germany where it was identified, causes brain and limb deformities in ruminant fetuses. The virus infects the females early in their pregnancies. Cattle owners have also reported diarrhea, fever, and reduced milk production in infected cows. No vaccine is available.
Humans aren’t the only ones susceptible to diseases like H1N1 influenza. Pigs can catch it from humans, too, according to research presented at an international symposium on pig diseases.
A research project examining swine populations in New Caledonia highlights how pigs can be infected by humans. New Caledonia is a group of islands located 1,500 kilometres east of Australia. Prior to the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, the pig population of New Caledonia was free from swine influenza.
Since mankind’s very first war, attacking the opponent’s food supply has been an extremely effective tactic. Yet somehow in modern times it is difficult for the public to perceive such a threat beyond the occasional benign production bungling that typically leads to a regional outbreak of disease. Governments and scientists, on the other hand, are much more aware of the true scope of agroterrorism risks and they are struggling to address them – partly through the biosciences and partly through a reorganization of defenses.
In regards to the latter, governments are tilting away from relying on public-private partnerships and are now turning to farmers around the globe as the first line of defense.
The two sides of the debate have very different opinions on how to prevent or curtail such threats. Those that favor organic farming believe that the evolution of natural foods is the best defense. They contend that removing antibiotics, artificial fertilizers, pesticides and aggressive genetic manipulations allows livestock and crops to develop natural defenses against disease while also preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics in the fight against an outbreak in humans.
Those that favor genetic enhancement of both livestock and crops argue that defenses against agroterrorism induced diseases can be thwarted faster and more effectively via the proactive use of the biosciences. Time, they say, is the real enemy because too much of the food supply can be lost to agroterrorism and decades of starvation may elapse before nature can recover on her own.
What the two arguments have in common is the belief that the answer lies in genetics. One side argues for natural evolution, the other for man-aided evolution, but they are both talking about genetics as both the cause and the cure.
Whatever the outcome of these debates, one truth is laid bare: the biosciences are no longer the strict and regulated province of elected governments and formally trained scientists. Biohackers, both those of the benevolent and the malicious ilk, have forever changed the question of manipulating genetics from one of morality to one of mortality.
The question of right versus wrong in regards to genetic manipulation has shifted from man’s “right” to use, to man’s intent of use. The days of considering foregoing its use entirely are long behind us. In the end, agroterrorism is the tie-breaker in the debate.
Researchers around the world are trying to decode livestock DNA. Some hope to improve disease resistance, while others are looking at production efficiency. Still others hope to improve meat quality, reproductive traits, pest and even drought resistance.
For my last blog post of 2011, I decided to go through the latest livestock genomic research from around the world.
Bacteria can remain resistant to antibiotics years after livestock producers stop administering them, according to a new study.
Science Now reports that researchers from McGill University studied the anaerobic bacteria in pig manure. Manure samples were taken from ten pigs, all out of the same sow, from the suckling to finishing stages.
The pigs were from a university farm that had banned antibiotics 2 ½ years prior to the study. Despite the lengthy ban, when scientists grew bacteria cultures in the labs, between 70 per cent and 100 per cent of them were still resistant to chlortetracycline.
Canadian Western Agribition wrapped up in Regina last weekend. For the first time the show featured high school rodeo, an auctioneer completion, and a First Nations pavilion. Visitors also took in Canadian Cowboys Association rodeo events, a large trade show and shopping area, and many other events.
It’s telling that both Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and comedian Rick Mercer were seen in the cattle barns. Despite all the other attractions, the livestock barns are still the heart of Agribition. They’re one the few places where urban people can speak directly with cattle producers and get an idea of what it takes to produce the hamburger they pick up every week at the grocery store. The cattle producers were willing to talk to visitors and explain the finer points of grooming a show animal. It was obvious that they took a lot of pride in their well-bred, well-coifed animals – the show ribbons on display were one indicator of that.
Scientists are getting closer to producing cultured meat products for broad human consumption. The first lab-grown hamburger is expected to be produced “in the coming year” according to a Reuters report on Mark Post’s progress with stem cells harvested from slaughterhouse leftovers. Post is a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and so far he’s been quite successful in producing inch long strips of animal flesh.
Granted the meat strips don’t look all that appetizing considering they lack blood vessels and therefore lack the vibrant red coloring consumers expect from a slab of meat. They are also incredibly thin, appearing more akin to gossamer butterfly wings than a thick, sizzling steak. Lastly, they lack fat which means that the taste likely falls somewhere between bland and ick!
None of those early shortcomings bother Post. Not even the need to regularly exercise these tiny slices of meat deters him. Yes, he must exercise the meat as it is muscle tissue and like all muscle tissue, it will waste away if not exercised regularly. Post deals with this by stretching them between Velcro tabs to provide resistance against the muscle fibers natural tendency to contract.
Post says the first hamburger will likely be made of thousands of layers of these cultured meat strips seasoned by lab-made fat and pressed into the expected patty shape. The whole process is labor-intensive which will likely push the burger’s price tag upwards from 300,000 U.S. dollars. However, production costs will drop with time as every technology does once the process is refined and perfected.
Supporters say the cultured meat rivals growth hormone and antibiotic fed animals produced by factory farms in terms of nutrition. Detractors say that the lab-grown meat will still meet with defeat in light of the current trend favoring organic and free-range foods.
In any case, cultured meat is not likely to pose any significant competitive threat to traditional or factory farmers in the immediate future. Production costs are still prohibitive and production processes far too slow to hit sufficient volumes to lower those costs.
More work also needs to be done to improve appearance, taste, smell, and texture so that the public will accept the food more easily. A serious and extensive public education campaign will also likely be necessary.
But when all is said and done, cultured meat is a necessity if a world full of humans are to be fed, says Post and his supporters. Conventional meat production is terribly inefficient and ultimately unsustainable which is why scientists keeping looking for ways to improve the entire process. Cultured meat, it is hoped, can eventually resolve many of these problems. To learn more, watch Mark Post’s TEDxBrainport presentation on advances in cultured meat in the video below.
“We’re looking at all the major derivatives or indicators of both carcass quality and meat quality. So grading information will be correlated as well as tenderness, all those traits,” says Sandy Russell, project manager.
“Health of livestock is one of the areas that genomics can have a huge impact on, because it’s very difficult to improve the genetics of health by traditional animal breeding. So if we can find variation in the genome that’s linked to variation in susceptibility to disease, then that will become a tool of major importance for the animal breeding industry,” says Dr. Graham Plastow, one of the lead researchers of the project.
“Where’s the motivation to develop into an agricultural powerhouse when you’re legislated to milk consumers for guaranteed profits,” Charles Adler asked.
I’m not going to outline all the pros and cons of the dairy supply management system. But I think that when it comes to innovation and research, especially in genetics, the Canadian dairy industry is an agricultural powerhouse.
A significant worldwide shift from quantity to quality in food supplies is underway, fueled by new government regulations, economic drivers and even natural occurrences.
For example, in Missouri USA, dry weather, poor feed, and poor fertility rates (open cow increases) coupled with a sizable decrease in the beef cow population has stimulated better management of the cows left to market. Topping the list of better cow management is a heightened interest in genetics.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in China, farmers are facing an imminent ban on antibiotic use and they’re scrambling to find alternatives post haste. The goal of the regulatory ban is to improve human health, primarily by slowing the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria by limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock.
One of the many alternative methods making inroads in the world’s most closed market is Orgacids, an acid compound feed additive produced by Sunzen Biotech Bhd, a subsidiary of Pfizer, in Malaysia. Orgacids works by killing bacteria in feed and animal intestinal tracts, primarily in pigs, chickens, cattle, and prawns. The compound made its way into China a little more than a year ago starting with a two month test conducted jointly by Sunzen Biotech and China Agricultural University. It is now used in several provinces.
While farmers using Orgacids or other alternative methods in combination, including acidifiers and probiotics, are recording increased growth rates and lower feed costs, they have not yet replaced antibiotics entirely.
Western farmers are now faced with the possibility of owning livestock that they may soon be unable to sell beyond their own borders. New measures will have to be taken to meet a global demand for higher quality and healthier foods.
Enviropig looks and acts just like any other Yorkshire pig. But Enviropig isn’t a regular pig. And whether you view that as a good or bad thing probably depends on your opinion of biotechnology.
Enviropig is a genetically modified pig developed by researchers at the University of Guelph. Mouse and E. coli bacteria DNA allow the pig to produce an enzyme called phytase, which helps it digest plant phosphorus more efficiently. As a result, each Enviropig excretes between 30 to 65 per cent less phosphorus in its manure.
Genome Alberta announced today that it is leading a group of funding partners on two large-scale genomics projects which will help improve Canada’s livestock sector. These projects build on Genome Alberta’s Applied Livestock Genomics Program which was launched in Dec 2010.
The full media release follows:
This is an important and active week at Genome Alberta, and we'd like to think for Alberta's livestock research sector in general.
Tomorrow at the Livestock Gentec 2011 Conference in Edmonton, our CEO David Bailey will make the formal announcement for 2 new research projects worth approximately 20 million dollars. The media release will be sent out later today and you can see it here tomorrow morning.
We recently added Lisa Guenther to our Livestock News and Views pages where she posts regularly every month. She is doing a great job for us and Alberta Agriculture's October 17th Ropin the Web newsletter gave her material a mention.
Starting at the end of October we will also have Pam Baker, a prolific freelance journalist who has appeared on our main blog pages but will now be a regular contributor to Livestock News and Views. Pam loves science and technology and more importantly doesn't want to see good science writing die out.
While I am at the Livestock conference tomorrow I will try to corner some of the researchers and have a conversation about livestock genomics research and post some of that material next week.
In the meantime though, here is an interviewI did a few weeks ago with Dave Edwards, Director of Animal Biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C. We talked about animal biotechnology, its importance, and some of the challenges it faces in the U.S.
I've been hanging on to the interview and this is an appropriate week for it to be posted. I seem to have developed the bad habit of 'popping my Ps' which my former radio colleagues would never let me live down. I'll be working on making it go away.
With the fall calf run underway in Alberta, it’s worth knowing a few statistics. For example, there are nearly 350 feedlots that hold over 1,000 head of cattle each in the province, according to the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association website. Together, these feedlots have the capacity to finish 2.5 million cattle. In 2009, over 2 million fed cattle were raised in Alberta, states the association's website.
One of the biggest challenges feedlot managers face is bovine respiratory disease, also known as shipping fever. When you consider production losses, mortality, and treatment costs, the economic losses from this disease are greater than the losses from all other diseases combined. Researchers from Colorado State University calculated that respiratory diseases accounted for 57 per cent of deaths among cattle entering a feedlot. A recent article at TheBeefSite.com puts that number even higher, stating that bovine respiratory disease accounts for 75 per cent of feedlot deaths in the United States.
MADISON, N.J. — Sept. 20, 2011 — Producers and veterinarians looking to make more informed decisions to advance genetic progress in their herds have a new educational resource from Pfizer Animal Genetics. “Using Genetics to Optimize Cattle Performance” is the first of three free e-learning sessions to be made available at www.learncattlegenetics.com to help beef and dairy producers, veterinarians and anyone involved in the cattle industry understand how to use genetic testing to accelerate genetic improvement and mitigate risk.
“Even though most cattle producers and veterinarians have heard of genomics and DNA testing, they may have questions about how the technology can help them make better decisions,” says Brad Kolstad, senior marketing manager, Pfizer Animal Genetics. “Our aim is to answer those questions through this new e-learning module, which can help participants better understand how genomic testing can accelerate the genetic progress of a cattle herd.”
On Monday, I attended a presentation that examined trends in livestock production. I was struck by how rapidly the science of agriculture is advancing. I was also struck by the immense challenges we face when it comes to feeding the world.
Each year there are another 80 million people for farmers to feed, said Aidan Connolly, vice president of Alltech. Our global population is set to reach over nine billion by 2050, yet one billion people already go to bed hungry each night.
The feed conversion efficiency of a herd can be calculated by dividing the amount of beef produced by the amount of feed eaten. All other factors being equal, higher feed conversion efficiency adds up to greater profits for beef producers and feedlot operators.
The online survey studied the responses of over 1300 Canadians. All the consumers surveyed were responsible for grocery shopping and meat purchases in their households. The study looked at how consumers choose between different meat types, including beef, chicken, pork, bison and lamb. The survey then examined which factors were most important to consumers when choosing specific products within their favourite protein types.
“Convenience and family acceptance were two large criteria,” says Dietrich. “So whether the whole family liked it, whether consumers found it easy to prepare and versatile for every day.”
Dietrich adds that environmental and ethical concerns were at the bottom of consumers’ priority lists. Food safety issues also rated low, though Dietrich thinks that consumers still consider food safety important.
“I think that we felt that people have a great deal of confidence and trust that the meats that they’re buying in Canada are safe,” Dietrich explains.
For consumers who purchased beef, price was an important criteria when choosing specific beef products. However, consumers also preferred Canadian beef over beef from the United States, and were willing to pay up to $3.52 more per pound for Canadian beef. This preference for Canadian products was consistent through all the other meat types.
Though aesthetic qualities such as taste and tenderness were not highlighted, Dietrich says they play into family acceptance. Surveyed consumers thought of beef, which was one of the favoured proteins, as juicy and tender. Dietrich has researched consumer behaviour for other organizations, including the former Beef Information Centre (now part of Canada Beef). Her previous research has shown that consumers expect consistency in quality when it comes to meat.
“They (consumers) do see a huge range of what I’ll call the aesthetic qualities of beef and that is a frustration for them. You can buy sirloin steak one day in your local store and it’s amazing. It tastes great, it’s not chewy, it’s well-priced. And next week you can buy that same steak in the same store and have significantly different qualities in that steak. There’s a great deal of frustration, and what that can lead to is them making the choice not to buy that product again in the future because they can’t trust that it’s going to turn out the way they want,” says Dietrich. She adds that the high number of processed foods may be part of the reason consumers expect more uniform food products.
There are several points the livestock industry can take away from Dietrich’s research:
Canadian consumers want to support Canadian meat products, and are willing to pay more to do so.
Consumers expect consistency in taste and tenderness in meat products. While meat can’t achieve the kind of uniformity you’ll find in boxes of Kraft Dinner (nor would we want it), projects like the one examining the link between genetics and tenderness in beef are a step in the right direction.
Earlier this week I attended the annualInternational Livestock Congressin Calgary.
They may call it a Livestock Congress but it tends to be pretty much all about the cattle but that's probably okay as many of the fundamentals affecting the various livestock sectors are often similar. As always there was an excellent roster of speakers to talk about the livestock business, where there are challenges, and where the opportunities are waiting. The full agenda and speaker lists are avialable at http://www.ilccalgary.com/html/about.html
Genome Alberta is one of the sponsors of the event as we invest heavily in livestock genomics related research and you can get an idea of just how much we're involved in at http://www.genomealberta.ca/research/projects/
The lead speaker for the morning was Glen Hodgson, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist for the Conference Board of Canada. Given the recent upheavals in the markets his timing to appear in Calgary gave ILC attendees the chance hear some excellent information first hand and as up-to-date as you could get. The main message was probably not to panic, fundamentals for the Canadian economy are good, and the Standard and Poors U.S. credit downgrade was as much a political decision as it was an economic or business decision. That doesn't mean all is rosey and he did suggest that consumers would have a little less to spend on extras or luxury.
Now move ahead to the afternoon session with Bill Helming of Helming Consulting Services based in Kansas.
Pork producers have seen tremendous advances in swine genetics when it comes to production. In the last fifty years, the yield of lean meat per kilogram of feed has more than doubled. Genetic researchers are now turning their attention to swine diseases such as Porcine Reproduction and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS).
Several North American organizations are working together, as part of the PRRS Host Genetics Consortium, to research how genetics play a role in PRRS infections. South of the border, researchers at Newsham Choice Genetics are studying genetic tolerance to PRRS. Archie Clutter, vice president of research and development at Newsham, expects that some parts of the swine genome will relate specifically to PRRS, but many parts will also be important for general disease tolerance.
In the long-term, researchers hope to develop tools to select pigs that are less susceptible to PRRS. Researchers also hope that their work will lead to better diagnostics, bio-therapeutics, and vaccines for PRRS.
Such research has many potential long-term benefits to the pork industry, such as cost reduction and improved animal health and welfare. Diseases can also affect the meat trade, and, in some cases, food safety.
The benefits of genomics research were apparent to Chalack when he became involved in the Holstein industry. Holstein breeders began using genomic information early on and saw tremendous gains in reliability and selection opportunities, Chalack explains. “It became very obvious very quickly that this pertains to all species,” Chalack says.
Chalack’s work with Alta Genetics brought him into contact with industry people from around the world, including South America, Australia, Asia, and Europe. He’s also had an opportunity to promote Canadian livestock genetics and genetic evaluation and programs, and has found that Canadian genomics researchers stack up well internationally.
“Certainly (in) the development of the dairy genetic evaluations we’ve been world leaders. And through all the various phases of proving of models and systems, Canada’s researchers have been in the lead,” Chalack says. He adds that the focus now needs to be on bringing the benefits of genomics research to the beef industry.
“There’s greater investment now on the genomics side to really help us (with beef genomics research),” he adds.
The beef industry will determine which areas of genomics research are most important. Ultimately, it comes down to profitability, Chalack explains. Identifying traits related to longevity, reproductive efficiency, disease resistance, and increased feed efficiency are some of the benefits of genomics research.
“We have one role in agriculture, and that’s to feed the world. And with burgeoning population numbers…that responsibility lies in producers doing a better job and being more efficient,” Chalack says. “We balance that with perhaps the lack of information that most consumers, now who are distant from the farm gate and don’t understand farming and the rearing of animals, we have a need to…look after the animal welfare issues.”
As chairman of the board and president of the Calgary Stampede, Chalack championed a new animal welfare policy, including developing an independent advisory panel to evaluate animal care practices. The Stampede’s animal welfare model has been so successful that exhibitions as far away as Houston and San Antonio have adopted similar policies.
Chalack is optimistic about the future of agriculture.
“Finally, after many many years of agriculture being a second-class sector in the minds of businessmen and people around the world, it’s elevated to its rightful spot of importance,” he says.
Accelerated Genetics was a recipient of the 2011 Governor's Export Achievement Award. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker presented the annual Export Achievement Awards on Tuesday, May 10th, to recognize firms and organizations that have achieved extraordinary results in international sales or have contributed to the state's increased ability to compete in a global market.
Walker says the companies serve as excellent examples of how to succeed in international markets, and proved they could prosper despite the ups and downs of the global economy.
Accelerated Genetics was recognized for being a top agricultural exporter-doing half of its business outside the country. Since the company sold its first order of semen internationally in 1957, the cooperative has kept the philosophy of 'customer needs come first.' In 2008, Accelerated Genetics constructed a 24-stall European Union Qualified Sire Isolation facility and over the past few years has also initiated cutting-edge marketing techniques to promote their sires. They have also added people to its team who are native to various countries to help cross the bridge into the global community.
"Our tremendous growth in international sales is a result of many things. Our international sales team's efforts, the respect that international dairy and beef producers have for our genetics program and the great superiority of the American beef and dairy genetics which enhance our efforts to meet the needs of many diverse and evolving markets around the world," says Gary Fassett vice president of sales and communication for Accelerated Genetics.
Calgary, AB – Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) President Travis Toews congratulates Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada for its majority win in Canada’s 41st General Election.
“The people of Canada have sent Prime Minister Harper back to Ottawa with a clear mandate to continue working to improve the Canadian economy,” said Toews.
A key element of the Conservative agricultural election platform was to strengthen the Government’s agricultural market access function. “The CCA looks forward to working with this majority government to complete important trade agreements with the European Union, Korea and on many other fronts,” Toews said.
The CCA congratulates Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan on their respective re-elections. The CCA appreciates the extensive travel and tireless efforts the Ministers have made to date toward improving market access. However, several times in recent years, Ministers Ritz and Van Loan and other cabinet ministers have been unable to travel to important international meetings abroad to negotiate for beef access because they have had to remain in Ottawa for potential votes. We hope that the government’s majority position will now provide Ministers renewed freedom to travel abroad to regain important access for Canadian beef exports.
The CCA also congratulates all the Members of Parliament representing rural ridings for their individual victories. In particular, we recognize beef cattle producers Larry Miller in Ontario and James Bezan in Manitoba for their strong showings. Other farmer MPs returning to Ottawa include Ted Menzies, Chris Warkentin, Randy Hoback, David Anderson, Rob Merrifield and Bev Shipley. The CCA looks forward to continuing to work with these MPs and getting to know newly elected rural Members in order to re-build a strong agriculture research capability in Canada and establish new Canadian agriculture policies for the long-term future.
For further information, contact:
Communications Manager, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
403-275-8558 x 406 or firstname.lastname@example.org
March 22, 2011
Calgary, AB – The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) appreciates the Government of Canada’s focus on research and innovation in the agricultural sector, as announced in Budget 2011 today.
The CCA has long held the view that research and innovation are crucial to the long-term competitiveness of the Canadian cattle industry. Programs such as the CCA’s Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS) are an example of the kind of innovation that will lead to enhanced trade and market access opportunities.
“The benefit of research and innovation to the Canadian cattle industry cannot be overstated,” said CCA President Travis Toews.
In terms of other cattle industry priorities, the CCA is strongly committed to work with the government following the delivery of the Budget towards a national cattle price insurance program and market development funding. Another important area for Canadian cattle producers is market access and it was re-confirmed in the Budget that will remain a priority for the Government. Completion of the negotiations for a Canada-EU comprehensive economic trade agreement (CETA) this year was specifically noted in the Budget. The CCA is a strong supporter of the CETA negotiations as Europe represents a high value market for Canadian beef that is currently accessible by a very small quota.
“The CCA is committed to working in the long-term with the Government of Canada to achieve policies that improve the competitiveness and profitability of the Canadian cattle industry. I know that the Government shares those objectives and I will look forward to continuing to work with them to advance the interests of Canadian ranchers,” said Toews.
For further information, contact:
Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
403-275-8558 x 406 email@example.com www.cattle.ca
Improving the Canadian cattle herd. The beef and dairy industries contribute more than $40 billion to the Canadian economy every year. Global demand for animal protein is expected to double by 2050 and genetic improvement will be key to enabling cattle producers to meet that demand. With support from Genome Canada, Canadian researchers were directly involved with a major international undertaking to sequence the bovine genome. Now, Canadian scientists are at the forefront of developing genomic selection techniques to boost genetic improvement in cattle. Specifically, they are targeting traits that are difficult to improve through conventional means. Low-cost tests are being developed that will allow an animal’s entire genome to be inferred from a relatively small number of genetic markers, giving valuable information about its breeding value at a very early age. This will bring immediate benefits to breeders, enhance product traceability and lay the foundation for the next generation of technologies aimed at environmentally sustainable production. It is estimated that this research will generate benefits in excess of $300 million over the next ten years.
Researchers are also studying public perceptions about the use of genomic technologies to enhance livestock attributes.
Maintaining healthy and more profitable pig production. With the mapping of the pig genome, scientists now have an opportunity to apply genomic-based tools to the pork industry. Similar tools have already revolutionized the dairy industry, providing annual benefits of over $180 million to Canada. With funding from Genome Canada, researchers are applying genomics to help reduce the impact of two of the most common diseases in commercial pig production - Porcine Circovirus Associated Disease and Porcine Respiratory and Reproductive Syndrome. Scientists are studying mechanisms in pigs that make them genetically less susceptible to these diseases, providing important new diagnostic tools for breeders and expanding our understanding of disease control mechanisms. This work will lead to new strategies for disease control in addition to new drugs, improved vaccines, and a safer food chain by reducing the use of antibiotics.
Researchers are also studying public perceptions about the use of genomic technologies to prevent disease in pork production.
The Government of Canada is supporting the commercialization of new genomics technologies that will reduce costs, enhance product quality, and increase the international competitiveness of the Canadian livestock industry.
The Honourable Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, today announced an investment of $3,539,000 towards the establishment of a service laboratory in Edmonton to provide genomics technologies to the livestock breeding and production sectors across Canada.
A far North Queensland Brangus stud will send the first ever Australian Brangus genetics to America later this year after achieving a record sale at the world’s largest stock show and rodeo in Houston, Texas.
The stud, owned and operated by Trevor and Maureen Pearce, son Stephen and his wife Brittany, and daughter Fiona, offered the option to flush a set of embryos from any of their donor cows in American or Australian herds.
You can see the full storyon the Queensland Country Life website.
The use if new technology and advances in science to improve herd health can take many forms.
This story from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is one example of new research leading to new approaches to improve the ag sector.
New biotechnologies that influence the sex ratio and fertility of production animals are set to not only dramatically boost the productivity and profitability of Australia’s cattle and aquaculture industries but also address significant sustainability and welfare issues.
The full story with audio clips is available on GenOmics.
Genome Alberta, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and the University of Lethbridge are pleased to announce the first of 9 projects approved for funding under Genome Alberta’s ‘Alberta Livestock Genomics Program’ (ALGP).
With 4.5 million dollars in funding from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) Genome Alberta put out a call for proposals in 2010 and has approved 9 research projects to help improve the quality, reputation, and health of Alberta Livestock.
Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a major food borne human pathogen causing disease worldwide. Cattle have been recognized as the primary reservoir for this pathogen. Targeting super shedder cattle for mitigation strategies has been proposed as a means of reducing the incidence and spread of E. coli O157:H7 to pen-mates and the feedlot environment.
This project seeks to expand the utility of DNA verification of traceability to comminuted meat products such as ground beef, reducing the scope of a product recall in the event of a contamination incident. This will have a very significant impact on the cost and effectiveness of such recalls, improving the recall process and increasing consumer confidence in the safety of the Canadian meat chain.
The goal of this project is to develop genome enhanced estimated breeding values (GEBVs) for sow feed intake and efficiency. These GEBVs will allow breeders to implement genetic improvement programs for these key traits.
This project will investigate the impact of host genetics on Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). This will provide a model for genomic improvements in health, allowing the industry to begin to select for animals that are less susceptible to PRRS virus and will potentially also provide better diagnostics, biotherapeutics and vaccines to manage the disease more successfully.
This project will develop a new approach to beef cattle selection, one that allows producers to use genomics in a way that ties results together with those of existing evaluations, making selection for profitable animals much more feasible.
Beef tenderness is a complex trait with many contributing factors including a significant genetics component. This genetic component should allow cattle breeders to improve the genetic level of tenderness in their herds as they have other important traits such as growth rate.
Genome Canada and Genome Alberta funded a large scale metabolomics project that was key in the 2007 announcement of the Human Metabolome.
Metabolomics is a related to genomics and proteomics and involves the rapid, high throughput characterization of the small molecule metabolites found in an organism. Since the metabolome is closely tied to the genotype of an organism, its physiology and its environment, metabolomics offers a unique opportunity to look at genotype-phenotype as well as genotype-environment relationships.
Metabolomics can be used in a variety of human applications but can also be used in the agricultural sector.
As part of our new Alberta Livestock Genomics Program, Genome Alberta and ALMA are funding a livestock metabolomics project called 'Identification of biomarkers associated with the onset & progression of major metabolic and infectious diseases of transition dairy cows'.
Here is a video presentation to help explain exactly what the science of metabolomics is all about:
Dairy cows are commonly afflicted with a variety of debilitating conditions such as mastitis (udder infection), metritis (uterine infection), laminitis, infertility,
ketosis, milk fever, downer cow syndrome, and displaced abomasum. These diseases are often difficult to detect by conventional methods and by the time they are detected it is often too late.
Zoonoses are infectious diseases transmissible from animals to humans. Foodborne diseases derived from zoonotically-infected food products pose a threat to human health, resulting in billions of dollars in health care costs as well as product recalls by the food industry. Many studies have shown that pathogens originating from farm animals can cause disease in humans.
Bovine respiratory disease, shipping fever, undifferentiated fever, or BRDcomplex, is a significant health problem facing the North American cattle industry.
The economic losses it generates surpass those incurred by all other diseases of cattle combined, arising from production losses, treatment costs and mortalities.
Genome Alberta and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency are funding a new project to sequence and compare the genomes of various strains of the disease to help develop new approaches to preventing the disease. You can find more about the new projecton our site and in the meantime here is a video from the U.S. National Cattlemen's Beef Association on Bovine Respiratory Disease and how it is currently managed.
Mannheimia haemolytica is an important bacterial pathogen associated with bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in cattle. Also referred to as shipping fever, undifferentiated fever, or BRDcomplex, this condition is a significant health problem facing the North American cattle industry.
The economic losses it generates surpass those incurred by all other diseases of cattle combined, arising from production losses, treatment costs and mortalities.
Using functional genomics to study cattle rumen and large intestine metagenomes, we will identify novel bioactive compounds for the control of E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens in cattle and develop innovative mitigation strategies based on a greater understanding of the microbial ecology of cattle shedding of E. coli O157:H7.
Whoever first uttered that immortal maxim about being unable to manage something without measuring it was likely someone in the cow business—casting a wishful and frustrated glance at his cows, then at his hay pile. This article from the archives of cattletoday.com introduces the concept of Residual Feed Intake and why it has become so important to the cattle industry here in Western Canada.
Researchers have identified positional candidate genes that may be involved in beef carcass weight, fat depth, ribeye muscle area, lean meat yield and marbling score. This project was completed in 2009.
For more information about the project you can find the .pdf on the Alberta Beef Producers website.
An agriculture-based think-tank will do an analysis of whether the cost of conducting client-driven optional BSE testing in animals before or after slaughter would be beneficial in the marketplace.
The work which is being done by the George Morris Centre will help to determine whether pre or post-slaughter testing would allow Canadian products access to export markets that are currently not available, potentially creating a greater demand for Canadian beef.
“In Alberta, in accordance with internationally accepted standards, we currently test those animals that meet the criteria for BSE testing,” said Jack Hayden, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. “This study is separate from our world-class surveillance system and the other steps that we already take to ensure the safety of our beef products for consumers. Alberta’s beef industry is market-driven, however, we need to constantly be evolving as science and technology progresses in order to further enhance our market opportunities.”
Through its Pre-Commercialization Business Development Fund (PBDF), the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI) has invested in InDanio Bioscience, an early-stage drug discovery and development company with a novel and unique screening system for the complete human nuclear hormone receptor (NR) family, using fluorescent tags attached to copies of human genes in living zebrafish embryos to identify and localize functioning individual NRs. The InDanio screening system can be used, for example, to functionally characterize ‘orphan’ receptors – those for which their natural ligands or specific function are unknown – and thus qualify them as potential targets for drug discovery. The system can also be used to screen compound libraries in order to identify and refine potential new drugs that target NR proteins.