Researchers and detectives have something in common: They both read clues and make deductions to achieve success. While they aren’t tracking down criminals, the brains behind a Genome Alberta dairy project know that impacting feed efficiency and methane emissions in dairy cattle is a goal well worth pursuing. Like great detectives, they start by piecing the clues together to solve the puzzle.
“We’re examining the transcriptome (RNA) and genome (DNA) of dairy cattle to improve feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions,” said Stephanie Lam, a PhD student working with Dr. Angela Cánovas and Dr. Filippo Miglior at the University of Guelph.
As they do, they’re looking for genetic variance or changes in the genome – such as insertion, deletion or duplication of base pairs - of animals with high feed efficiency.
A quest for clues
“Essentially we are seeking genetic clues to help us determine what makes certain animals more feed efficient than others. Dr. Cánovas applies a systems biology approach to this, which is a comprehensive, interdisciplinary method of biological research.”
According to Lam, the more biological levels of data they integrate, the better they can understand the biology underlying the complex traits of feed efficiency and methane emission. But as is often the case with research, gathering that data is easier said than done. They are currently using public data from the National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI) website. For those armchair scientists who wonder why Lam and her colleagues don’t just get their own animals and collect their own samples, the answer lies in two things we could all use more of: time and money.
A dearth of data
“It’s very expensive and time-consuming to do RNA sequencing, collect tissue and analyze it for DNA and RNA, so we’re using public data as much as possible. That’s not easy, though, because the information we’re seeking is so specific. We need phenotypic and genotypic data on our two targeted traits, and that can be hard to come by.”
In addition, researchers on the project are collecting data on feed efficiency and methane emissions from their own animals.
“We’re using that animal population to help validate what we’re doing with the public data and confirm if our results are correct. With more information, we can further specify which gene variants are really affecting our key traits.”
If it all sounds quite involved, there’s a reason for that, and the complexity of the research can be a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective.
Sometimes it DOES take a rocket scientist
“For me, it’s exciting to be working with such advanced technology and with the systems biology approach that integrates several disciplines including molecular genetics, bioinformatics and genomics.”
“It’s important to connect producers and industry to academics and researchers and expand the understanding of the function of genes in regulating economically and environmentally important traits like feed efficiency and methane emission. By tapping into genetic information, we can improve the accuracy of genomic predictions and from that, enhance the profitability and sustainability of the Canadian dairy industry.”
This project might not be solving crimes, but if the progress so far is any indication, it may produce some arresting results.