If you think finding the right gift for the right person is a challenge, try matching beef cattle genes with the traits they control. In large part, that’s the challenge being faced, and embraced, by scientists as they apply genomics to improve traits of interest to Canada’s commercial beef industry.
“A key focus of the Genome Alberta project is identifying the genes responsible for feed efficiency and meat quality including tenderness,” said Dr. Mohammed Abo-Ismail, postdoctoral fellow, Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta.
To pinpoint those genes, researchers considered two strategies. One option, the candidate-gene approach, studies the genetic influences on a complex trait by identifying candidate genes based on their physiological role and mutations. Alternatively, a genome-wide association study involves scanning anywhere from a few thousands to 43 million markers across the complete sets of DNA of many animals to find the genes associated with a particular trait.
For their beef cattle project, researchers chose the latter approach. While the exact process is highly technical, the advantages of employing genomic technology in finding which genes to focus on are significant.
“Using genome-wide association to achieve our goals is critical in terms of the number of animals with recorded phenotypes, the number of genetic markers, statistical method, and the target beef cattle population,” said Dr. Abo-Ismail. “Traits like feed efficiency and carcass quality are very hard and expensive to measure, requiring sophisticated technology to collect large data sets over a considerable period of time. For meat quality and tenderness, they are almost impossible to measure on live animals, and that creates another set of issues.”
Regardless of the approach, there’s no disputing the importance of selecting for specific traits.
Chewing on the numbers
“Given that feed costs represent 60 – 70 per cent of cow-calf producer expenses, using that feed more efficiently has far reaching implications. Similarly, meat quality and tenderness are critical to producers as they are key factors affecting consumer behavior. When you look at different areas that impact a buyer’s satisfaction with the food they eat, such as psychology, marketing and sensory elements, two of the most influential meat quality traits are tenderness and flavor.”
It has been demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay for more tender or higher quality beef, so the main challenge is attaining that tenderness and quality on a consistent basis. That’s where genomics comes into play, and where honing in on particular genes becomes critical.
“Traits like feed efficiency and meat quality are controlled by many genes, so they are complex traits. We are studying close to 13,000 animals, which are representative of the majority of the Canadian purebred and crossbred beef cattle populations. In doing so, our main objective is identifying the genomic regions associated with these traits or causing variations in them. Our ultimate goal is to develop a genomic tool, like a small gene marker panel, that is affordable and can be used by producers to evaluate their animals for the traits we’re targeting.”
Moving forward, Dr. Abo-Ismail and his colleagues are working to enhance the accuracy of selection and maximize the benefits to industry.
“For meat quality, producers will be able to select on the live animal, which was previously not an option. With feed efficiency, they can designate the more efficient animals to stay in the herd and cull the poor performers or select which animal to be sent to the feedlot. They will also have a selection tool for the sires that can be used in the herd for breeding, leading to considerable savings on feed in the years ahead.”
As selection performance improves on the meat quality front, it should enhance the demand for Canadian beef and make the industry more competitive on the world stage.
The holiday season may have passed, but given the potential benefits of this beef cattle research, genomics could be the gift that keeps on giving.