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Experts in Animal, Human Genetics Talk Innovation at Angus Convention

Cattle producers and Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI®) are not the only ones thinking about advancements in genetic selection. Genetic tools and research in fields such as aquaculture and human health are also exploring ways to improve tools and industry methods.
On November 4 at Angus Convention in Orlando, FL, a panel presentation featured Kristin Brogaard, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Inherent Biosciences; Debbie Plouffe, vice president of business development for the Center for Aquaculture Technologies; and Kelli Retallick-Riley, president of AGI®. The session was sponsored by Neogen®.
Following the convention’s theme of experiencing innovation, they discussed how genomics has transformed how people think about breeding cattle today and connections seen across their research and business fields.

“In 2009, the first genomic-enhanced EPDs were released through the American Angus Association®,” Retallick-Riley said. “Since that time, the rate of adoption and the rate of adoption by producers in this room has grown astronomically. Nearly 60% of [Association members’] registrations submitted in 2023 were accompanied by genotypes.”

Collectively, this amounts to 1.5 million genotypes being included in Angus’s weekly genetic evaluation. Both Retallick-Riley and Plouffe agree there are several reasons the agricultural industry has seen a shift toward more genetic testing.

“I think the drive towards genomic selection is really being fueled by, and agriculture is being fueled by, this desire to improve animal welfare, reduce the treatments that we’re doing, and therefore improve overall productivity and sustainability of the industry,” Plouffe said.

Retallick-Riley said genomically enhanced EPDs present themselves as a marketing tool but are more importantly a breeding and herd management tool. She told the audience 45% of the Association’s available genotypes are from females.

“That tells me that the people in this room are not only committed to making sure commercial cattlemen have their individual information to select bulls but are using genomics to ensure they’re making genetic progress on the female side as well,” said Retallick-Riley.
From a research perspective, studying disease resistance through genetics is of interest to all three fields – beef cattle, aquaculture, and human health. Aquaculture has experienced some significant wins using genomics, especially with a particular viral disease that affects Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, and all their relatives.
Plouffe said the disease was unique and rare in that it is controlled by a single gene.
“Using that information, we were able to build a genetic test that could be used to accurately predict which fish, which breeders, were going to produce animals that were resistant,” she said.
The success helped aquaculture increase the technology’s adoption rate for genomic testing among salmon, rainbow trout, tilapia, and more recently some shellfish species.
When it comes to human health, Brogaard said she has seen growth in her company’s products, which focus on male fertility, due to how common infertility is among couples and their desire for better fertility treatment options.
“One in six couples suffer from infertility,” she said. “There is usually two years of trying, $80,000 on average out-of-pocket (costs) to go through a single fertility journey. There are three times more divorces in couples seeking fertility care.”
In a word, she described the typical fertility treatment process as “awful.” In response, Brogaard and her colleagues have developed a sperm test, SpermQTTM for male fertility, which analyzes the expression of 1,233 genes in a sample. Test results help couples determine the best next steps for them.
“We can now very accurately predict the likelihood of artificial insemination success, pregnancy and live birth based on how your genes are being expressed, looking at those 1,233 genes,” she said.
Brogaard’s background is in epigenetics, which is the science where nature and nurture meet. In other words, epigenetics is influenced by the individual’s environment as well as gene expression.
“What’s probably the most important part of this is that those guys that we identified as having abnormal epigenetics, four out of five of them had normal semen parameters,” she said. “Talking to some people last night, it sounds like that’s sometimes the case in this (cattle) industry where you have semen parameters, but they’re not usually predictive of fertilization outcomes. So that’s interesting because we are seeing the same thing in men.”
Comparing industries, Brogaard said she finds herself jealous of the volume of data and research conditions available to Retallick-Riley and Plouffe as animal genetics researchers, and she said she is excited about what epigenetics could bring to the table in their fields.
“You can just move a lot quicker,” Brogaard said. “I think there’s huge potential of identifying epigenetics that are important for [proper fertilization, embryo development with your embryo transfers and offspring health] for your industry, and I’m really excited about it.”
Breeders utilizing contemporary groups and submitting data, especially through Inventory Reporting, help tie phenotypic and genomic information together and move the needle on industry progress.
“If we didn’t have this large database, our genomic predictions wouldn’t nearly be as accurate, they wouldn’t be as useful, and we’d be stifled by the rate of genetic change that we can make for that reason,” Retallick-Riley said. “Luckily for me, I get to work for an organization that allows us to be able to put out some of the most accurate genetic evaluations in the industry.”
The trio also discussed how researching environmental impact on gene expression combined with traditional genetics research could help us understand more about complex diseases in animals and humans.
AGI® continues to work on its heart health initiative for cattle and the study of more complex traits like functional longevity. Brogaard shared Inherent Biosciences is branching out and working on detection tools for male urological cancers, while Plouffe and her team work on furthering breeding strategies using genomic selections in aquaculture, including gene editing.
Plouffe said gene editing gives them more flexibility in how they can introduce some traits. Her company’s view is “responsible application of genome editing requires sterility,” she said, so breeding for sterility has been another focus of their research.
“We don’t see it replacing traditional selective breeding,” Plouffe said. “This is just going to be another tool in the breeder’s toolbox that they can use to introduce traits of interest.”
She continued, “I think if you find the traits that are both interesting for the consumers and the producers, that’s where you’re going to be most successful.”
For more stories from the 2023 Angus Convention, visit angus.org and view “News & Announcements.”
– Written by Sarah Kocher, Angus Communications
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