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Variation the Spice of Life for Genome Project

Contrary to popular opinion, not all research is a thrill a minute. Don’t tell that to researchers on the Efficient Dairy Genome Project, however. If the prospect of raising feed efficiency and lowering methane emissions in dairy cattle isn’t exciting enough, some recent work on the role of variants in targeting those traits is really spicing things up.

In examining variants, scientists are searching for clues as to what accounts for differences among animals regarding traits of interest such as feed efficiency.

“We are looking at changes in the genome called copy number variants (CNV),” said Adrien Butty, a PhD. Candidate at the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock, University of Guelph.

“Where SNP’s – the most common type of genetic variation – are changes to a certain point in the genome, CNV’s are whole segments that change from one animal to another,” said Butty. “We know from other studies that CNV’s influence production, immunity, and reproduction characteristics of dairy cattle. For this project, the next step is determining how these variants affect feed efficiency and methane emissions.”

Fertile ground for research

To date, Butty has identified CNV’s in dairy cattle that link to the phenotypes of fertility and immunity. Though his work thus far is based on a relatively small data set due to the expense involved in obtaining such data, more information is on the way thanks to AI companies associated with the project.

“I am looking forward to working on the new data, and I expect to publish a list of copy number variants for the Canadian Holstein population in the near future. From there, the long-term goal is to implement these variants in the genomic selection process conducted by the Canadian Dairy Network.”

For producers interested in estimated breeding values (EBV’s) that can be used to identify the best animals for mating, Butty’s progress is significant.

“The information I’m producing should enable us to generate more accurate breeding values, and that is where my work converges with the industry. While there is a higher cost to developing these EBV’s, any accuracy we gain is important for ensuring that when breeders do their selections, they are basing them on the most accurate and complete information available. If farmers can gain accuracy for their mating and selection, it will be a huge gain for the industry as a whole.”

Though some bad combinations of variants in the genome can lead to defects, diseases or still born animals, knowing which CNV’s have that effect could help explain how those conditions occur and offer insights on how to prevent them in the future.

For a PhD candidate like Butty, wading knee deep into the Efficient Dairy Genome Project is a prime opportunity to gain hands on experience and impact the industry in the process.

Digging in and speaking out

“It’s a thrill to be digging into data and hoping to see something come out of it. With this type of work, some may say you are shaping the data to tell you what you want to hear, but I am simply taking it where it leads me.”

Recently, Butty had an opportunity to present some of his findings at one of the weekly seminars held at the University of Guelph. After playing to a full house, he was pleasantly surprised by both the attendance and the feedback.

“We had industry representatives at that presentation who don’t usually show up for these types of discussions. It’s gratifying to see the level of interest and support we’re receiving from industry, and we appreciate the data they provide as it would be costly to obtain it on our own.”

Besides, if you can’t get excited about copy number variants and their implications for dairy cattle, you’d better check your pulse.

Variation the Spice of Life for Genome Project

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