Generally speaking, research project extensions are rarer than pigs that skip a meal. Given that reality, it should speak volumes for the Genome Alberta-led project on improving disease resilience in pigs that it has been extended for three more years. That’s good news for producers, as it means more progress to protect their pigs and their bottom line.
“The new funding from the Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) will allow for additional research to validate some of our results, as it extends our current project from five years to eight years,” said Dr. Michael Dyck, Professor - Department of Agricultural, Food, and Nutritional Science, University of Alberta. “It will sustain the work we have been doing on disease resilience with PigGen Canada.”
Tools of the trade
That work involved using genomic tools to assess markers and identify animals that showed superior resilience in the face of disease. From their efforts to date, researchers have pinpointed key indicator traits and genetic traits that separate resilient pigs from their peers. With the extension, they can further validate these traits and incorporate them into the breeding program.
“As part of the on-going research, we will continue assessing animals via the natural disease challenge model,” said Dr. Dyck. “Working with CDPQ (Centre de développement du porc du Québec), we set up a facility where animals were exposed to various pathogens in a commercial environment to see how they would respond.”
One of the prime indicators of resilience is having mutations associated with certain genes that produce a strong immune response, enabling pigs to continue growing and being efficient in a production environment. The researchers also found traits linked with animals that allow them to maintain their current food and water intake in the face of a disease challenge, and they hope to use these traits as markers for breeding companies to better select pigs.
As well, they found an immunity test in collaboration with the University of Guelph that identified pigs with a heightened immune response when challenged. These are the types of traits that they are hoping to validate with more animals. They will look at resilience traits in association with other traits, so they don’t select for resilience while having a negative effect on daily feed intake or average daily gain, for example. Clearly, researchers need to understand these interactions before incorporating traits in a breeding program.
When less is more
“Through working with breeding companies directly, we are creating a genetic foundation for animals that end up at various levels of the genetic pyramid. If we can give breeders the tools to select more resilient animals, that will filter down to commercial herds and reduce costs associated with disease detection and treatment. This should enable us to use fewer antibiotics, thereby addressing society’s concerns around the inclusion of these products in livestock production.”
Perhaps most importantly, decreasing the disease and suffering that comes with exposure to pathogens can enhance animal welfare. Producers will know that the pigs they send to processing come from a healthy environment, and that knowledge can be passed along to consumers.
Though achieving results from research is often satisfying, the three year extension on this project takes that feeling to another level.
“Often with research, you don’t get the opportunity to see the outcome integrated and fully applied with industry. The extra funding lets us take that next step of collaboration, so that’s very gratifying.”
While looking ahead, Dr. Dyck is quick to give credit for the progress thus far.
“It was PigGen Canada that came up with the initial idea of working with Canadian researchers on using genomic tools to improve disease response. I want to commend the organization for having the vision and ability to continue working with us to make this happen.”