Aliens and royalty share two traits: They’re both said to have unique blood colors and they’re equally out of touch with the common man. Genomic researchers, on the other hand, are focused on the common pig as part of a Genome Alberta project. And thanks to the more “pedestrian” red blood, they are well on their way in examining why some pigs are better equipped genetically to fend off disease and how we can use genomics to improve disease resilience and sustainability in Canadian pork production.
“Blood is a window on health,” said Professor Graham Plastow, Chief Executive Officer of the Livestock Gentec Centre at the University of Alberta.
Blood gets around
“If you’re going to develop new tools for industry, blood collection and analysis is critical. Blood and the circulatory system reach every part of our body to deliver energy to tissues and remove waste.”
In the war between animals and pathogens, the latter can invade in different ways. As Plastow explained, blood essentially acts as a portal, revealing activities in the lungs, liver and other areas.
“There are molecules and antibodies we can see in blood and associate with those particular tissues; that is really our starting point.”
Recognize, respond, resist
Researchers are also pumped about the role of blood in measuring
immune response, a key component of this project.
“We think of the immune system as having two competencies. The first is innate resistance, something that has evolved as a quick response to invaders that allows the body to stay on top of infection. We also have the adaptive immune response involving antibodies where if we experienced this disease before the body is ready to respond to it again.”
Finding the markers of an effective immune response is central to this Genome Alberta initiative.
“When they get the flu, some people go to bed, sleep, drink water and in a couple of days are up and going again, while others may take longer to recover. It’s similar in pigs and we would love to have bullet-proof animals through vaccination, but there are just too many pathogens out there to make that viable.”
Hence the interest in resilience for pigs, that quality that enables some infected animals to mount an immune response and be back running with their herd-mates sooner rather than later.
“We see that in this project,” said Plastow. “Pigs are exposed to the same pathogens in the same environment and generally continue to grow well, and the blood samples allow us to examine that response. The key to the project is whether we can predict that response by developing a range of tests on healthy pigs from high health barns that haven’t been exposed.”
Resilience is far from futile
While the idea of selecting pigs for resilience may seem abstract to some, Plastow is hoping to deliver some concrete results to producers.
“Research is always saying ‘results are coming soon’; we are trying to develop another tool producers can use along with biosecurity and vaccination to protect their animals.”
He likens the battle against disease to an “arms race” where improved resilience can help industry get the upper hand on the enemy.
“This way when disease is going through a barn the animals will recover faster and the negative impact of these events on producers will be reduced. There will still be some loss of production but our target is to reduce that loss, and it’s a very exciting goal.”
For producers, the exciting thing right now is that researchers see the variation and have the tools to pull it apart. That can also benefit pig breeding companies who can use the tools to improve their genetics, adding increased resilience to other desired traits such as strong growth rates and high feed efficiency.
Okay, maybe red blood is less “regal” than blue. Still, if researchers have their way, the results could make even the royals green with envy.