Did you know that cows and people are closer related than you might think? In fact they share 80% of their genome. Now that might seem odd but its something that James West chief science officer of AgGenetics, in Tennesse thinks about a lot.
Numerous years ago, it occurred to Mr. West that he could take the exact same approach as he did with his research on humans, to find genes that would improve animal health, and edit those in. He came in contact with Dr. Warren Gill, who at the time was running the largest Agribusiness program in the South-East. AgGenetics was established, with an objective to work on the possibilities of using identification of specific alleles, with gene editing, to improve animal welfare and performance of cattle breeds.
Heat-Tolerate Angus Cattle:
The scientific duo commenced the roll-out of their first project involving the production of heat-tolerate Angus cattle. According to James, Angus cattle begin to feel heat stress at about 24°C. They selected multiple lines of elite Angus and added a gene for a white coat with black skin, to reflect sun while resisting melanoma and sunburn, and shortening up the coat to improve evaporative cooling.
‘This should bring it up to about 32-34°C before they get heat stressed. We’re also working on identifying genes associated with parasite resistance, also critical for tropical adaptation, and in the next generation we’ll be adding those as we find them.’ James explained.
James said that this project will be useful in numerous countries, especially throughout the U.S, as thousands die from heat stress annually, with others experiencing severely impacted performance.
[James West pictured]
‘The work of AgGenetics also includes dealing with other welfare issues – Dr. Gill expresses a particular interest in micronutrient deficiency, and AgGenetics has developed the first minimally invasive test for copper and selenium levels, for instance. Currently this requires a liver biopsy, while the test developed by AgGenetics only takes a skin punch or a blood draw.’ West added.
AgGenetics have also taken a bovid hybrid bull – a bison cattle cross – which are normally sterile, and restored its ability to make sperm using a stem cell transplant.
James told That’s Farming: ‘This is useful for more quickly editing genes (we can edit the stem cells before we put them in), but it also has implications for human health, for instance preserving fertility in male children undergoing treatment for cancer.’
The company have numerous projects which are set to get underway, in several other species, with a focus on moving health and performance related genes, however these are at very early stage.
The technology devised and utilised by AgGenetics, allows breeders to pull specific traits out of one breed and add them to another breed, without spending twenty-five years back-crossing.
There are two parts to this, with the first being identifying the genes responsible for the trait you’re interested in and then step two involves editing them in.
The process itself- What exactly is involved? :
‘Genetics as done by most of the livestock industry is quite good at improving overall performance – EPD-based breeding has been great – but is very poor at identifying the specific genes responsible for particular traits. In the last few years, the methods for doing this in humans have been revolutionised, making it possible to identify the specific genetic variation responsible for any high heritability trait in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the number of individuals that were previously required. This means that the first part, finding the genes responsible for the trait you’re interest in, has become orders of magnitude cheaper and faster than it was just ten years ago.’ James explained.
‘The second part, editing them in, has also undergone a tremendous change in the last few years, driven by two new technologies, CRISPR and TALEN. These technologies are rather different from each-other, but both allow you to make a cut anywhere you like in the genome of a cell. That alone doesn’t do you much good – you can destory a gene, but that’s not usually what you want. However, if you give it a piece of DNA to fix the cut with, and do some molecular tricks to encourage the cell to use it, the cell will fix the cut using the piece of DNA you’ve given it – which can include the changes to the gene that you need to introduce the new trait.’
West went on to explain that you can then turn that cell into an animal. Sounds like science fiction? Well its all happening now.
‘The animals that result [from this process] are indistinguishable from the results of natural breeding – it just takes you a whole lot less time to get the gene into your breed. You can do it in one generation, rather than 5-10 it takes to normally backcross a trait, and for a whole lot less cost.’
Mr. West strongly believes that the future of the livestock industry entails the investigation of heat tolerance, parasite resistance, disease resistance, size, marbling, milk production, immune function, resistance to plant-based toxins.
‘Instead of starting a long-term breeding program to improve it, do it in one generation. This also allows animals to be created from elite genetics that are specialised to specific purposes or environments. Added benefits including saving money and time, but also in the quality of the animals at the end. You often lose a lot of your elite genetics in traditional breeding programs in which new traits are introduced. ’ James said.
Heat-tolerant Dairy cows:
Most of the work at AgGenetics has involved Angus cattle, however heat tolerance has also been added to an elite dairy cow. This cow and her dam both produced 16,000 kg of milk last year.
The future plans at AgGenetics entail the highly anticipated arrival of calves which are expected next summer, both in the US and in Brazil, from a few lines of heat-tolerant Angus. Other projects underway such as creation of bulls that make only female sperm are a little further behind.