As anyone who has endured online dating will attest, finding your perfect match is a tough hill to climb. Yet as researchers and industry partners have proven, the right collaboration can move mountains, and where better to reinforce that than at the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar.
“As researchers, the more informed we are on the needs of industry, the better we can make decisions and craft studies to meet those needs,” said Dr. Michael Dyck, Professor, Animal Science Division Director, Agricultural Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.
In seeking to increase disease resilience in pigs through genomics, Dr. Dyck and his colleagues have teamed up with PigGen Canada, a not for profit organization managed by a Board of Directors with representatives from swine genetic companies. PigGen Canada members have participated at every step of the research process, ensuring that scientists are asking the right questions around resilience and susceptibility of pigs to disease challenge.
“Together, we then reviewed technologies to address pig health such as genomics and the microbiome, leading to a range of breeding and management strategies,” said Dr. Dyck. “As results came in from the project, PigGen Canada continued to guide us in separating key findings from those that are interesting but less relevant for industry.”
With the project now in its final year, the collaboration between science and industry continued with a workshop and breakout session as part of the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar (BPS).
The workshop was the first of two (the second one that was scheduled for this May has been postponed due to COVID-19) focusing on updating PigGen members on the project, gathering their input and discussing strategies for disease resilience.
“We felt the workshop was highly effective in allowing members to contemplate the progress thus far and in stimulating discussion,” said Dr. Bob Kemp, Vice President of Genesus Inc., a board member with PigGen Canada and a Co-Lead on the Genome Alberta-led project. “It also identified aspects of the project that we may want to consider in terms of how to implement a program of genetic improvement at the farm level.”
Breaking out and checking in
While the breakout session at BPS 2020 was another chance to provide project updates, this time to BPS delegates, it was also an opportunity to showcase the efforts that go into such projects and the implications for disease resilience.
As part of the breakout, Dr. John Harding – Professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan – spoke about the Natural Disease Challenge Model that was specifically developed for the study. Whereas previous research on resilience has occurred on a smaller scale, this project was able to expose large numbers of pigs to the same polymicrobial disease challenge.
“The project assessed 3500 pigs, which is one of the largest cohorts ever exposed to multiple pig diseases,” said Dr. Dyck.
Using such a comprehensive model allowed researchers to gauge pig response to disease. They could then perform genetic analysis and identify differences between animals that were susceptible versus those that displayed resilience. This analysis was explained during the session by Dr. Jack Dekkers, Distinguished Professor and Section Leader of Animal Breeding and Genetics at Iowa State University.
The session also included discussion of the gut microbiome and its impact on pig health, research that was conducted by Dr. Ben Willing, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in the Microbiology of Nutrigenomics.
To wrap things up, Dr. Kemp offered an overview of PigGen Canada’s role in the project and the potential implications for the industry.
Session organizers were pleased with the results, citing strong attendance and some raised eyebrows about the scale of the project and how much data it has managed to generate. As well, the timing of the study and the Banff session and workshop may have further raised those brows, given the current state of the world.
“The pork industry is well acquainted with the disruptive nature of disease, but with COVID-19, the general public is seeing first-hand how disease can impact so many things at so many levels,” said Dr. Dyck.