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Federal Genebank Releases First Animal Germplasm

By David Elstein
September 9, 2004

The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation recently released animal germplasm from its collection for the first time, to researchers with the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Fort Collins, Colo., center is run by the Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency. The University of Missouri scientists received semen samples from three Holstein bulls. Holsteins are the main breed of dairy cows raised in the United States. The researchers are trying to identify genes associated with milk production and specifically requested these samples from bulls born in 1957, 1964 and 1972.

Although Congress mandated in 1990 that the National Animal Germplasm Program become part of the Fort Collins center, the program did not receive its first animal germplasm samples until 2000, when 40 lines of chicken germplasm arrived. Since that time, geneticist and center coordinator Harvey Blackburn has collected germplasm from many varieties of chickens, cattle, swine, sheep, goats and farmed fish such as catfish and rainbow trout.

Last year, Blackburn collected enough semen and embryos from Holstein cattle to reintroduce the breed in the United States if that should ever become necessary. The center preserves semen from 850 bulls and 150 embryos from 25 cows representing the diversity of the Holstein breed.

The center itself opened in 1958 as a long-term seed-storage facility. The collection now includes more than 450,000 seed types. The main objective of both the plant and animal sections is to serve as an "insurance policy" in case different varieties of plants or animals are one day confronted with genetic diversity problems.

The center staff not only store plant germplasm, they also distribute it to researchers around the world. In addition, ARS scientists at the center are researching better ways to preserve and store the plant and animal accessions.

Most of the center's plant samples are also maintained at ARS germplasm repositories across the country. If something happens to any of those, the Fort Collins center is there for backup. But the Fort Collins center is the only USDA lab that preserves animal germplasm.