The path to enlightenment can stem from many sources: a sudden awakening, a profound dream, a herd of pigs. If the last one sounds unlikely, don’t tell members of the Canadian pork industry supporting research on harnessing the power of genomics to increase disease resilience. Because industry members see the potential and are sending researchers a clear message: “We’ll provide the pigs; you provide the path”.
“We joined the PigGen research consortium [which is helping to fund the Genome Alberta-led disease project] two years ago,” said Tom Rathje, Chief Technical Officer at DNA Genetics LLC in Nebraska.
“To us it was an opportunity to work with companies of like interests, explore relevant questions and leverage research dollars to better understand pig genetics.”
Rathje and his colleagues grasped the potential of addressing disease susceptibility and the genetics that allow certain pigs to be robust and more effectively tolerate challenges to their health status.
“Once the research objectives were defined, our role became simple. We just have to contribute pigs to the overall project and ensure they’re delivered on time, then let the researchers take it from there.”
Those objectives fit well with the agenda of DNA Genetics and their customers.
Resistance is far from futile
“The direct value for us is gaining insights to the underlying genetic variation. Once that variation is identified, we can tap into it to find those animals that are more resistant, leading to greater efficiency, reduced inputs and less use of antibiotics. We can also gain a greater understanding of the immune system and why some pigs thrive while others don’t given the same challenges.”
While historically the company has focused on factors like growth rate, feed efficiency, litter size and pig quality, the research on disease resilience is timely to say the least.
Supplying the demand
“Being a genetic supplier, our goal is to provide customers with products that let them be successful. As we look to the future, the public is pushing for reducing the use of antibiotics in food production. We need to understand the genetics of resistance or robustness so pigs continue to thrive in an environment with reduced antibiotics.”
With that understanding, Rathje hopes his company can produce more robust options that fit the needs of clients who are trying to provide safe, wholesome products in response to the changing demands of consumers.
Also, as a scientist, he loves to be involved when research meets reality.
“The results we generate from the project can be directly applied to breeding programs almost immediately. I’m excited to see the funding and effort being invested in comprehending all of this on a deeper level.”
As Rathje pointed out, 20 or 30 years ago we didn’t contemplate that genetic variation even existed for immune response.
“This is a new field that has been embraced by researchers and veterinarians and created a tremendous collaborative opportunity for everyone involved.”
And collaboration is key when it comes to breaking new ground.
“It’s heartening to come together with people who are normally our competitors and combine our efforts to benefit the industry as a whole. I see it as a real testament to PigGen and the commitment of its members.”
While DNA Genetics is based in the United States, they have a significant presence in Canada, so the international nature of this project really appealed to them.
“All parties to this have a common interest in the market as well as the research.”
So with all due respect to the power of profound dreams, it may be a herd of pigs that lets industry rest easy in a changing world.