Did your mother ever tell you that “the early bird gets the genomic predictor of resilience”? Odds are, she didn’t, but for scientists on a project led by Genome Alberta to improve pig health, finding early indicators of resilience through genomics is turning the odds of success squarely in their favor.
“Our initial work on the project produced genotypes for 650,000 genetic markers across the genome,” said Dr. Jack C. M. Dekkers. Dr Dekkers is a C.F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor and Section Leader of Animal Breeding and Genetics in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University.
“Thanks to additional funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we’re also collecting genomic data from 900 pigs that entered a natural disease challenge to identify potential predictors of resilience.”
One promising area emerging from the data is transcriptomics. It involves examining the blood samples of pigs prior to a disease challenge and measuring the level of expression for about 16,000 genes. From this information, researchers can determine whether the expression of a particular gene when pigs are young and healthy is predictive of greater resilience later on if they are challenged by disease.
“We are also working with proteomics, where we take that blood sample, measure the levels of various proteins in it and identify which proteins are indicative of resilience down the road. Then there is metabolomics, involving the same process but looking at metabolites in the blood.”
Throughout their work, the overarching goal is to measure these various elements in the blood and identify the ones that predict resilience.
“A lot of these ‘-omics’ technologies are the same ones being used for diagnosis in human medicine; for example, to assess your risk of getting cancer. When you go to the doctor and have a blood test done, they are measuring all kinds of things, and we are doing likewise with pigs, but measuring a lot more than they would at the doctor’s office.”
Genes that fit
Though it’s early in the process, scientists have found a number of genes whose expression at an early age foretells ultimate resilience levels in pigs.
“We’re finding considerable variation among pigs in the study, and a lot of variability that is still untapped by selection. We just need to figure out which specific measures we should be selecting on to achieve maximum predictability of resilience.”
It’s a highly complex area of research with high stakes for the industry; fortunately, scientists are drawn to challenge like pigs to mud.
“Research has struggled to make progress with disease and resilience. There are a multitude of bugs that can make pigs sick and a lot of factors involved. We see great promise in this project, though, because we’re working with a large number of animals and generating considerable data on each one. That should produce a unique data set that can answer a number of important questions.”
Dr. Dekkers likens the effort to a “fishing expedition” where they try to measure as much as possible and then make sense of the accumulated information. If all goes as planned, “making sense” could mean more dollars for producers.
“The hope is to parlay this research into tools that producers and breeders can use to select more resilient animals. We want to increase resilience not just to disease, but to other stressors like heat, cold and anxiety. If we can produce pigs that are better able to cope with whatever faces them, it should reduce losses and treatment expense while minimizing antibiotic use and improving animal welfare.”
The early bird may still get the worm, but assuming genomic predictors of resilience have the desired impact, they should prove a much worthier prize.