Genome mapping: Now serving cattle

Farm Forum

WORTHINGTON, Minn. – Ongoing research in the beef industry may one day soon make it possible for producers to grow cattle that produce meat containing lean protein and good fats yet still provide the great taste today’s consumers look for at the meat counter.

Great strides have already been made in the industry, and as James Reecy recently shared in his presentation at the Regional Bioscience Conference in Worthington, Minn., there is great potential not just in the beef industry, but in all livestock species, to create a more uniform product and generate more profit for the farmers who raise them.

Reecy, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University in Ames, discussed genomics and its relationship to on-farm profitability in his first appearance at the Bioscience Conference. This was the ninth annual conference, which returned to the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

In recent years, Reecy said molecular markers in beef cattle have been able to predict the genetic merit of an animal. During his presentation in Worthington, Reecy will discuss the success of those markers and whether they can be used to help cattle producers become more profitable.

“Overall, the simple answer is yes, but it depends on the trait as to what the economic impact may or may not be,” he said.

In his 14 years with Iowa State, Reecy has studied results from various research projects at ISU’s purebred American Angus research herd at Sheridan, Iowa.

“We’ve been continuously trying to look at and identify genetic mechanisms controlling traits of interest, be it growth, carcass and meat quality, to potentially new traits like the nutrient composition of meat itself,” he explained. “We could make (meat) healthier to eat so you get your daily requirement for iron, or we could make the calves more disease resistant, so they’d be less susceptible to bovine respiratory disease.”

The study of molecular markers in beef cattle began about five or six years ago, Reecy said. The markers — there are roughly three billion in the human genome –are studied in hopes of explaining variations in specific traits of interest.

“If we could predict genetic superiority or inferiority of an animal, you can actually make selection for it without having to directly measure that trait, thereby keeping the cost to a minimum, yet maximizing your potential change in whatever suite of traits you wanted to select for,” Reecy said.

Citing meat quality as an example of a trait that could be improved, Reecy said the tenderness of meat used to have to be measured after an animal was slaughtered. Through genetics and variations in molecular markers, researchers are searching for ways to determine the tenderness of meat without having to kill the animal. This is important when a livestock producer is considering what to keep for breeding stock and what to sell as market animals.

“You can do this in all of the species today — this is not something that’s unique to beef cattle,” he added.

Reecy said it isn’t just meat quality that researchers are hoping to improve upon with genetics.

“We’re hoping to move toward food safety things as well — decreasing food-borne diseases such as E. coli and salmonella — using genetics of the animal to help (reduce occurrences).”

Reecy said that through research at Iowa State, almost half of the variation in certain fatty acids in beef can be explained through the use of molecular markers. He called the results “exciting,” and said the same research being done on beef cattle could also be used to predict human health in the future.

“We’ll be able to know if we have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or some intestinal disorder or cancer,” he said. “In time, with the human genome project, those types of things will become available as well. Everything we’re doing on the livestock side is not very different from what’s being done on the human side — we’re doing more than just health traits on livestock.