As of September 2019, Germany’s Leibniz-Institut für Nutztierbiologie (FBN) is home to BovReg—a $9 million, EU-funded project dedicated to generating a comprehensive functional annotation map of the bovine genome and applying that knowledge to validate novel models for biology-driven genomic prediction. The knowledge will allow breeders and producers to improve traits, such as robustness, health (especially udder health) and biological efficiency. A parallel focus on animal welfare will consider the physical limits of cattle, ensure that efficiency in one trait does not harm others, and provide options for reducing antibiotic use safely.
“Functional genomics in the livestock sector is very much a ‘black box’,” says Dr. Christa Kühn, Director of the FBN. “It’s like driving a car without a map. You want to go to Munich but all you can do is go in that general direction. You might reach the city… you might not.”
Furthermore, phenotypic data collected from the big breeds cannot be applied directly to the smaller breeds. Former Gentec CEO Steve Moore remembers being aghast to find out that gEBVs do a great job on Holsteins but not on Jerseys.
“We have a causal variant and some markers ‘in the neighbourhood’ but, for the small breeds, we’re not reaching Munich,” says Kühn, staying with the metaphor. “Data that BovReg collects from, for example, Brown Swiss, Braunvieh, Montbeillarde, Normande and Nordic red cattle will be important for those regional breeds and for others, too. They will help maintain biological diversity in the national herds.”
To achieve its goals, BovReg brings together experts in bioinformatics, molecular genetics, quantitative genetics, animal breeding, reproductive physiology, ethics, social science and dissemination/ commercialization from 13 countries (11 European, plus Australia and Canada). Canada, in particular, plays a special role.
At the core of the project Gentec will provide 24 tissue samples from Kinsella crossbred animals characterized for feed efficiency and methane production. These samples are one of three sets that will undergo detailed next-generation genomic analysis in the European labs collaborating in BovReg. In addition, Gentec will provide data from 7,000 samples of composite, Angus and Charolais phenotypes for feed efficiency, methane production, carcass and quality traits and 500 samples of commercial crosses for health traits. The samples have been comprehensively analyzed for genomic structures, and have produced genotypic, phenotypic and transcriptomic data, which are an important component of genetic analysis. BovReg reviewers rated this contribution so highly that they recommended funding for it.
“It is quite exceptional that the EU funded Canada’s contribution—even as a symbolic gesture,” says Kühn. “It happens in less than 5% of cases. The reviewers insisted, due to the substantial impact of the samples. The Kinsella animals bring diversity, which is an issue in livestock breeding, and an advantage of the Kinsella vs purebred beef cattle populations.”
BovReg will be a first official collaboration between Gentec and this European team, even though Gentec CEO Graham Plastow (seen hiding behind his sunglasses at the BovReg kick-off meeting here) and Christa Kühn have known each other for a number of years.
“This is a really exciting opportunity for the Gentec team, which includes Ellen Goddard, Carolyn Fitzsimmons, Leluo Guan, ChangXi Li, John Basarab and Paul Stothard,” says Plastow. “It allows us to build on our investments over the last 10 years in characterizing the populations at the Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch, the Lacombe Research and Development Centre and beyond, placing our animals at the centre of a major international initiative with many of the world’s leading bovine research teams. That work was funded by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Innovates, Genome Alberta, Genome Canada and the Beef Cattle Research Council, industry partners and other organizations.”
Within BovReg, team members and partners will have access to an internal database. Externally—and part of the data-sharing plan—eight partners are active in the global FAANG (Functional Annotation of ANimal Genomes) consortium, whose data are publicly available, free of charge, opening the possibility of citizen scientists becoming involved in the spirit of Open Science. Key partner, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, hosts the FAANG Data Coordination Centre (the official repository of all FAANG-related data produced globally) and will ensure that data deposited are convenient for input and retrieval, giving them extra value. In addition, four partners are Steering Committee members of the 1000 Bull Genomes Consortium. Integration into these global initiatives will facilitate dissemination to a wider academic community. Although BovReg is dedicated to basic research, it will reach out to the public and policy makers to ensure support for its objectives.
“The use of the Democs card game and the availability of free resources will improve the public’s motivation to engage in the discussion on the promises, values and consequences of science in livestock genomics in general—and of BovReg deliverables in particular,” says Kuhn. “I truly hope this will advance our efforts in sustainable agriculture and food security.”