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Genome Researchers Find Strength in Numbers

Unless you’re a minimalist or “just trying to cut down”, more is usually better. That’s certainly the case with the Genomics of Swine Health-2 Project. As Genome Alberta researchers strive to improve disease resilience in pigs through genomics, more data means a better chance of achieving their goal. So it’s little wonder they’re excited about joining forces with another research project that complements their own.

“For years we have dovetailed the funding we got from the United States Dairy Association (USDA) with Genome Canada funding to work on disease issues,” said Dr. Jack Dekkers, Distinguished Professor of Animal Science and Section Leader of Animal Breeding and Genetics at Iowa State University.

Then came his team’s latest funding: a million dollar award from the National Institute for Food in Agriculture (NIFA - USDA) for a project titled Phenomics for Genetic and Genome-Enabled Improvement of Resilience in Pigs. When they caught wind of Genome Alberta’s work on resilience to multiple diseases, they wanted to put that money to good use.

More data anyone?

“The nice thing is that a lot of the groundwork and funding was already there with Genome Alberta to do all these disease challenge studies on 3500 pigs. A lot of phenotypic data has been collected but we have the opportunity to collect much more.”

Dr. Dekkers and his team proposed that they conduct more in-depth data collection on a thousand of the pigs in the disease challenge model. This involves gathering information when the animals are young and using it to develop predictors of resilience.

Given the description of blood as “a window on health” by Dr. Graham Plastow, a researcher on the Genome Alberta project, there’s a lot of value in these additional measurements of other elements in the blood such as metabolites, glucose and proteins.

“More data improves our chances of finding specific things in the blood that predict whether pigs will perform well in a disease challenge,” said Dekkers. “If we can take blood samples from healthy young animals on the farm and determine from that if they have the genes for strong resilience, we can then select for future animals with that quality.”

Benefits package

All of this adds up to a project with great scope and potential.

“In terms of the number of animals and number of factors we’re examining with these animals, I don’t know of any other livestock research that compares. Hopefully some of what we learn will translate to chickens or cows as well.”

According to Dekkers, the project’s scope is a credit to the power of collaboration.

“This is an excellent example of cooperation between the United States and Canada, both at a scientific and funding level. It’s great that agencies like Genome Alberta, Genome Canada and the USDA are open to these international collaborations as in the end, everyone benefits.”

Getting personal

In addition to giving breeders better tools to select for resilience and allowing producers to buy pigs that are hardier in the face of disease, this research could also benefit what Dr. Dekker calls “personalized medicine”.

“If a blood sample tells a producer that certain pigs won’t fare well against diseases, they may be able to arrange vaccinations or other treatment to prevent those animals from getting sick. Giving individual preventive treatment based on test outcomes is a prime example of precision farming at work.”

There may be situations where “less is more”, but don’t tell that to researchers who rely on data - and lots of it - to achieve their goals; for them, the more the merrier.

Genome Researchers Find Strength in Numbers

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