For the past two years, Seyed Ali Goldansaz (known as Ali) has been working primarily on two sheep-based projects. While this might sound unusual for a Gentec student; not so, he says. In fact, it works particularly well because he is enrolled in an interdisciplinary program at UAlberta (faculties of ALES and Science) and co-supervised by Gentec CEO Graham Plastow and The Metabolomics Innovation Centre (TMIC) leader David Wishart (the significance will become clear in a moment). The projects focus on identifying biomarkers for feed efficiency, carcass quality, pregnancy and litter-size detection in sheep using metabolomics.
"Our goal is to develop a pen-side kit that allows producers to identify those characteristics through a quick and easy blood test” says Ali. “It will look like a glucose test for diabetics, or a pregnancy kit. The colour changes for positive or negative.”
Take pregnancy, for example. The test will identify pregnancy and the number of fetuses more accurately and earlier than ultrasound. Sheep commonly have multiple fetuses—but may lose some before term because of inappropriate nutrition and handling.
“Producers can also save on feed costs by identifying open animals sooner and getting them back into the breeding pool for a second chance rather than needlessly ‘eating for two’,” says Ali. “They also need to know how many fetuses as early as possible in the pregnancy in order to adjust diet accordingly. This information affects the viability of the lambs directly.”
On the feed efficiency side, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) calculated that producers could save $1.93/head per production cycle in Alberta by identifying efficient sheep sooner. With this information in hand, producers can adjust feeding regimens to different groups of animals.
This is where TMIC comes in. The development of the test kit itself is a $5 million, multi-year project that involves engineers, chemists, nanotechnologists and other specialists. Delivery is expected in 2018-19. The beauty is, once the platform and the technology have been figured out, it can be used for any biomarker and any species—with some tweaking.
This work in sheep is a first for Gentec and TMIC but it might easily not have happened. Graham Plastow introduced Ali to Susan Markus at AAF who collaborated with him to write grant applications based on mutual ideas. Hence, these two projects.
“I had great support from Graham, Susan and Dave in allowing me to come up with ideas, write them up, collaborate and polish the text of the applications,” says Ali. “It made a huge difference. I hope that by the end, we have exciting results to present.”
In fact, Ali has already presented preliminary results at the Alberta Sheep Breeders' Symposium in Red Deer and the Ontario Sheep Marketing Convention. He was a hit at both events, with interest from producers, invitations to present at other events, and interview requests from Sheep Canada Magazine and others.
Ali has also built a new collaboration with John Gilleard at UCalgary on the possibility of identifying blood biomarkers of sheep infected by parasites at preclinical stages, which would improve both pasture management and animal health (to avoid infecting other sheep). Preliminary results are positive but, in view of the small sample size, much more work is needed.
On the metabolomics side, Ali has done an extensive systematic review on all metabolomics data published up to 2016 on sheep, cows, goats, horses and pigs. The results have been published and the data are freely available online at the Livestock Metabolomics Database.
Based on his thesis work, professional development and with the support of Graham, Dave and Susan, Ali obtained a prestigious scholarship from Alberta Innovates and, most recently, a Globalink award from Mitacs. The latter means that, at some point in 2018, he will be heading to New Zealand—which has shifted production from sheep meat to milk—to characterize mastitis in dairy sheep with Massey University and NEER Enterprises, the industry partner.
“This will be the first work of its kind in New Zealand,” says Ali. “It’s all very exciting!”