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Made-in-Alberta Livestock DNA Analysis

At the end of last week’s post, I briefly mentioned a Canadian DNA lab specializing in livestock. When it was launched in 2011, Delta Genomics was a spin-off of the University of Alberta’s Livestock Gentec Program. Its start was largely thanks to an over $3.5 million investment by Western Economic Diversification, along with further support coming from Alberta Innovates, the Alberta Livestock and Meet Agency, Genome Alberta and Genome Canada.

“By providing access to important technologies and services, this facility will help the Canadian livestock industry to produce higher quality and more cost-efficient products,” said Minister Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, upon Delta Genomics inception. “This means that producers can grow and create even more jobs and opportunity in our communities.”

Since that pivotal moment, Delta Genomics has grown, officially becoming self-sufficient in November of 2014.

“What started out as an idea at the university has evolved into a full-fledged company that’s at the forefront of genomics technology,” said Delta CEO, Colin Coros, on the celebration of the organization's independence. “Some of the best DNA specialists in the industry are working with us and committed to making the livestock industry more profitable and sustainable.”

Analyzing Hair

One of the services the new, fee-for-service, non-profit organization provides, is the genetic analysis of livestock hair. I had the opportunity to hear all about it when I called Delta Genomics last week, and Michael Lowings answered. He explained the entire process, starting with the inventory of every hair sample received.

Once successfully entered into the inventory system, samples enter an array of machines to separate DNA from follicle.

“We first take the hair follicle and digest the cellular structures away from it with an enzyme cocktail,” explained Lowings. “And that basically breaks down all of the cellular components and releases the DNA.”

Next, the DNA binds to tiny metallic beads that are washed to purify the DNA. In just thirty minutes, the lab can bring 100 samples to this stage.

“And then once we’re there we also store that step and at that point we can go in any direction --- parentage testing, genetic profiling, genetic condition testing,” Lowings told me.

Already overwhelmed, I decided to focus in on parentage testing, one of the most basic of the aforementioned opportunities. Lowings explained that they target anywhere from 100 to 120 individual genetic markers previously identified by the International Society of Animal Genetics.

“We have a series of assays that PCR amplify the 100 regions of interest out of the raw DNA,” Lowings said, going on to explain that each genetic marker has a different mass, a key ingredient in the next step.

With the help of a DNA-measuring robot, a sample of this DNA is then shot with a laser in a mass spectrometer, which essentially weighs and identifies the genetic markers. From there, the team can use a computer program to assess the likelihood one animal was born of another, provided they have the genotype of both.

To those of you wondering what #parentage assignment looks like, look no further! #science #biotech #ag #beef pic.twitter.com/8O507wjAzU

— Michael Lowings (@Gentec_Michael) September 23, 2013

Lowings told me the turn around from receipt of a sample to data output is about ten business days. And, although they’ve done all kinds of DNA testing (including one particular prize animal, whose spine was recovered years post mortem ), hair is preferable.

Debra Murphy is a full-time field editor for RealAgriculture. She currently resides in Alberta, where she has only witnessed the extraction of DNA at a children's science fair.

Made-in-Alberta Livestock DNA Analysis

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