Bringing Genome to the Dinner Table

Max Rothschild has been trying to “build” a better pig for almost 30 years, since he took a job cleaning up after the hogs at his alma mater, the university of California, Davis. He is now a renowned seine scientist who has traded the dirty pigeons of his undergraduate days for a glistening Iowa State University laboratory dedicated to producing tastier chops, safer pork and healthier pig. Rothschild is part of a national collaboration that earlier this year received a $10 million federal grant to map pig genes. Researchers from the University of Illinois-led project promise it will help take the guesswork out of breeding.

The idea is to find and exploit the genetic variations of the best pigs, which Rothschild and likeminded agricultural researchers say will radically change the industry. Already, chicken and cow genomes-complete genetic maps of each species-have been published, and race horse breeders have applied to the National Human Genome Research Institute for a grant to run an equine DNA sequence. Most animals’ genetic sequences are now done with the support of the institute because of its expertise, and comparing animal genomes to the human genome helps with medical research.

Mapping the roughly 30,000 genes in each animal requires extracting the genetic material from its blood. The DNA is then replicated many times over and tin through a computer known as a sequencer, which spites out the swine’s genetic makeup in a code of four letters-T, A, C, G-representing the nucleotides that comprise DNA.

Even before the pig genome I completed sometime next year, top commercial producers such as Pig Improvement Co and Monsanto are using preliminary results from genetic screens to see if they can determine which pigs are the tastiest before they are butchered. The screens will also be used to manage herds and make breeding decisions, among other improvements.

“They can now look inside the pig,” Rothschild said. “They are both building better pigs with this technology.” Rothschild previously discovered a gene variation that causes sows to produce more piglets per litre than average. He developed a test for the variation that is now widely used throughout the industry, and he said it could be useful in the Third World. “The developing world wants to eat meat,” Rothschild said.

“And there’s only one way to produce it-grow more animals.” Rothschild also envisions a day when every farm animals bar-coded, which could enable producers to better track of their herd and more quickly trace the source of outbreaks like mad cow disease. The bar codes also would let the breeders pamper the top pigs with better feed and sort them from the run-of-the-animals.

Cargill, which supplies about 20%of the nation’s beef, is working on a genetic screen to sort its cattle by the quality of their meat, something that can’t be done now until the animal is slaughtered.

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