DNA research key for Irish agriculture
INNOVATION PROFILE:Teagasc’s Animal Bioscience facility, Grange, Co Meath
TEAGASC’S NEWLY opened Animal Bioscience Facility in Grange, Co Meath, will use the latest DNA-based approaches to assist Irish farmers produce better quality and healthier livestock and ultimately improve Irish food production.
“The publication of the genome sequence for cattle in 2009 has opened up the possibility to use these approaches to study commercially important traits. These include milk and meat production, immunity and disease, nutrition and reproduction,” explains Teagasc director Prof Gerry Boyle.
The new facility was developed as part of the Teagasc vision programme which was initiated in 2006 with the objective of establishing centres of excellence in the key sciences that underpin Irish agriculture. Animal bioscience is a key component of the organisation’s Animal and Grassland, Research and Innovation Programme which integrates applied and strategic research across the main livestock species in Ireland namely dairy cattle, beef cattle and sheep.
The Animal and Bioscience Department carries out research in the areas of animal breeding and genomics, animal health and welfare, infection and disease, computational and systems biology, fertility and reproduction, feed efficiency and product quality. The new technologies being developed have the potential to accelerate the rate of gain in efficiency and quality.
“Using the new areas of science such as genomics, proteomics, and systems biology, we are seeking to develop tools to more accurately identify the most profitable animals for current and future production systems,” says Dr Richard Dewhurst, head of the Teagasc animal and bioscience department.
“We are developing the optimal breeding programmes to maximise genetic gain in the long term. Our main research activities include the development of multi-breed genetic and genomic evaluations, breeding objectives and breeding programmes for dairy cattle, beef cattle and sheep. We also aim to identify genes, pathways and biological processes mediating resistance to infectious diseases in cattle and sheep and how these genes interact with pathogens and the environment.”
While we are not quite at the stage of “designer animals” the use of these new DNA techniques could have a dramatic impact on Irish agriculture. “If we take the DNA sequence of a bull, for example, we can use that to more accurately predict the characteristics that will be passed on to his progeny,” Dewhurst explains. “And the rate at which we can get the information is accelerating so we will soon be able to get the DNA sequence for individual animals. It’s all about analysing the data and relating it to the traits we want to predict.”
This highly scientific data led approach is a revolution in terms of the practices which obtained just 25 years ago. “Over the past 25 years genetics has become much more statistics-based, before that it was an art,” says Dewhurst. “We have been using statistical models to predict traits in animals for the past while but now with the genome we will be able to identify good quality animals with the desired traits even before they reach maturity.”