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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Healthy Animals 40

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Issue 40, January 2010
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Germplasm Collection is Key to Ensuring Healthy Animals

A healthy pig rests its snout on the back of another pig.

Research Briefs

More milk, less calves. ARS scientists have discovered why Holsteins—bred to produce more milk—are less fertile than before breeding efforts were stepped up to increase dairy production.

Cleaner chicken. Technology developed by ARS researchers that automatically scans poultry carcasses for contamination has been successfully tested in a commercial poultry plant.

Easier for ewes. Artificial insemination techniques that work well with cattle and swine can be difficult or costly to perform in sheep, but help's on the way, thanks to ARS studies.

Better blood flow. Doppler technology—the very same technology used by meteorologists to track thunderstorms—is being used by ARS scientists to better understand the rate at which fescue toxicosis restricts blood flow in cattle.

Thwarting E. coli. Immunizing calves with either of two forms of a vaccine newly developed by ARS researchers might reduce the spread of sometimes deadly Escherichia coli O157:H7 bacteria.

Hitchhiking bugs. Plywood-shelved carts that are used to transport eggs into processing plants can harbor Enterobacteriaceae, according to a microbial survey conducted by ARS scientists.

Sterile screwworms. Transgenic screwworms developed by ARS researchers could set the stage for new, improved methods of eradicating the pest based on the sterile insect technique.

It was a modest enough beginning a decade ago, when researchers from the National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) began stashing away genetic material from 40 distinct lines of chickens. Those birds have become the foundation of one of the world’s great germplasm repositories, which now houses half a million samples from 12,000 animals.

The collection of germplasm at the Fort Collins, Colo., facility maintained by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) assures a future with genetic diversity of agriculturally significant animals—especially dairy and beef cattle, chickens, sheep, swine and even bison, elk and fish.

“As we learn more about genes and gene function, it becomes not only a backstop for the industry, but a tool for the research community,” says Harvey Blackburn, NAGP coordinator. “With a genetic resources collection like we have here, the more that’s known about gene function, the more important it becomes.”

Providing vital genetic material for scientific research has become a primary function for Blackburn and other NAGP specialists at the Colorado facility. They have distributed 2,500 animal samples to ARS researchers, private laboratories and university scientists who are working to improve the genetic makeup of animals.

The collection has been useful in many ways. For example, ARS researchers have used frozen bull semen to genotype prominent bulls that have sired dairy cattle. This information, combined with milk production comparison data gathered from the cows, has been used to improve dairy cattle breeding programs.

Genetic material also has been used to restore breeds of cattle and other animals that have died out. Researchers insist that maintaining diversity by preserving germplasm--even if the material comes from breeds that aren’t currently being studied—acts as an insurance policy against future diseases or other threats.

In many cases, the storage chest at NAGP has saved money for animal producers, who have begun using semen samples preserved at deep-freeze temperatures, rather than keep a live herd of cows or other animals, which are costly and time-consuming.

ARS researchers in Miles City, Montana, store and use their cattle germplasm to help their efforts to reduce beef production costs, as demand for corn grows with the need for ethanol and human food. Young female cattle, for instance, can be bred for lower target weights, consuming 27 percent less feed over the winter. The program might reduce costs of each replacement heifer by more than $31.

The germplasm collections provide information as well as breeding material for animal producers, and they play an important role in protecting and improving agricultural livestock.

National Animal Germplasm Program coordinator Harvey Blackburn and technician Ginny Schmit place germplasm samples into a liquid nitrogen tank for long-term storage.
National Animal Germplasm Program coordinator Harvey Blackburn and technician Ginny Schmit place germplasm samples into a liquid nitrogen tank for long-term storage.

In Florida, ARS scientists are working to save cattle breeds that are tolerant of tropical temperatures by studying the cattle genome and storing and preserving the germplasm they need for that research. The Subtropical Agricultural Research Station in Brooksville is a satellite repository that also supplies genetic material to ARS in Colorado.

The NAGP collection has been used to prevent existing breeds from dying out. Scientists there collected and distributed germplasm to support milking Shorthorn cattle, a rare breed whose numbers are unknown in the United States. The Shorthorns have lower milk yields than Holstein or Jersey cattle, but have been successfully crossbred with other breeds. They also are valued for their even temper and production efficiency. NAGP researchers have helped collect genetic material from animals that have been verified as native Shorthorns.

In related work, scientists at the ARS National Sedimentation Laboratory (NLS) in Oxford, Miss., have been cataloging 124 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals to build a baseline sampling of animal diversity, including about 11,000 samples taken since 1986. During those efforts, scientists documented the presence of one rare species, the Yazoo darter, a fish found only in fresh water and ponds near Oxford.

Researchers there maintain the collection of 11,000 specimens mostly for identification purposes, or to document the arrival of the occasional rare species, said Scott Knight, who works at the NSL’s water quality and ecology research unit. In 2001, University of Southern Mississippi ichthyologist Stephen T. Ross published a 624-page book about the inland fishes in the Deep South.

In Michigan, researchers worked with DNA-based technology to develop 40 distinct lines of chickens at the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory (ADOL) in East Lansing. Those studies have revealed tools and techniques used in the diagnosis, control and prevention of diseases such as virus-induced tumors in poultry. The unique and genetically well-defined lines have been critical to significant research projects at ADOL and at similar laboratories in the United States and overseas, and have increased understanding about genetic resistance to disease.

The ARS U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., has evaluated more than 50 cattle breeds, selection lines, and crossbred cattle populations since its inception in the 1960s. Dozens of sheep and swine breeds, crossbred populations, and selection lines have also been evaluated.

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Information from this research has a significant influence on the types of animals being produced in the industry. A byproduct of the research has been the accumulation of diverse and influential genetic material. This genetic material has been invaluable for finding and verifying genetic markers associated with meat tenderness, prolificacy, muscling, and other measures of production efficiency. The research station is also a satellite repository and supplies genetic material to the Colorado collection.

For more information about ARS germplasm collections, contact Mark Boggess, leader of ARS National Program #101, Food Animal Production.


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ARS Animal Health Research Laboratories

Healthy Animals Archive

Last Modified: 1/20/2010