Plant and Animal Genome Conference XXVIII Highlights

by Xuechun Bai

The Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG), marketed as “the largest ag-genomics meeting in the world” takes place in the middle of January each year in San Diego, California. In the laid-back California atmosphere, San Diego is always a sunny, warm place to defrost from Alberta’s chilly winter. PAG XXVIII, held on January 11-15, 2020, brought together over 3,000 leading scientists, researchers, biologists, bioinformaticians, and industry representatives from around the world who presented their latest contributions and future research. Tianfu Yang (postdoctoral fellow) and I (PhD student) were so excited to represent UAlberta and Gentec at the meeting, and feel on the cutting-edge of genomics. A big Thank You to Gentec and Dr. Graham Plastow for sending us and helping me secure a Graduate Students’ Association Academic Travel Award.

L-R: Xuechun Bai and Tianfu Yang
The large crowds and packed schedule at PAG XXVIII covered a range of topics related to the genomes of plants and animals, so be sure to check out all the event materials through the Meeting App.

FAANG Workshop and Updates
FAANG is the Functional Annotation of ANimal Genomes project and works to understand the genotype to phenotype link in domesticated animals. PAG XXVIII provided a great opportunity to foster interactions and collaborations of the FAANG community and to communicate and exchange information regarding their recent FAANG contributions.
Dr. Christa Kühn, Director of Germany’s Leibniz-Institut für Nutztierbiologie (FBN), introduced the BovReg project, which is a part of the global FAANG initiative. BovReg aims to provide a comprehensive map of functionally active genomic features in cattle and help to understand associations between the epigenome and complex phenotypes related to robustness, health and biological efficiency. Gentec is excited and proud to participate and provide tissue samples from Kinsella crossbred animals characterized by feed efficiency ratios and methane production. “Team members and partners will have access to an internal database,” said Dr. Kühn. “BovReg will develop biology-driven genomic prediction tools by integrating biological knowledge of regulatory genomic variation and genomic selection methods for local and global cattle populations.” The results will advance our efforts in more environmentally sustainable cattle production and food security while respecting animal welfare.
Dr. Colin Kern, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Huaijun Zhou’s group at University of California Davis, presented their updates for the FAANG project. “We completed the first comprehensive identification of regulatory elements in farm animals across eight tissues in the chicken (White Leghorn), cattle (Holstein), and pig (Large White) genomes,” he said. The data and results from the FAANG pilot projects are available on the FAANG data portal and viewable on genome browsers via a UCSC track hub. These datasets will provide a resource for our Gentec swine studies to better annotate current GWAS results and improve the understanding of complex traits, including disease resilience and meat quality.

Swine Workshop
The swine workshop aimed to highlight updates on how the transcriptome, genome assembly and GWAS can be used to identify markers linked to important production traits in swine. It covered hot topics in complex production traits including meat quality, pig behaviour and aggression, feeding behaviour and feed efficiency, sperm quality, pig health and disease resilience.

Dr. Claire Rogel-Gaillard, a senior scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), presented her group’s work on updating the annotation of the swine leukocyte antigen (SLA) complex on chromosome 7 from the genome assembly Sscrofa 11.1. This work makes significant contributions to the study of disease responses because the SLA complex plays essential roles in the immune system, including peptide presentation and self/non-self-recognition. Dr. Rogel-Gaillard’s group reannotated the whole SLA genomic region, refined the annotation of 27 SLA genes, corrected the gene structures and names, and characterized the gene allele sequences and splicing variants. I was so excited to talk with Dr. Rogel-Gaillard afterwards during my poster session. As one of our collaborators on the pig project of disease resilience, Dr. Rogel-Gaillard was very interested in our studies and the results of exploring complete blood count as a phenotype for disease-resilience in pigs. She also offered to help me further annotate my GWAS results regarding the SLA complex. This help will make our GWAS results more meaningful and help us to better understand and explore the immune functions and responses related to disease resilience.
We also talked to and had lunch with Dr. Jack Dekkers and his group, who are also collaborators on the disease resilience pig project. His postdoctoral fellow Dr. Kyu-Sang Lim and PhD student Yulu Chen presented their results and indicated the potential of using the blood transcriptome and protein levels of young healthy pigs as biomarkers to improve pig disease resilience, respectively. Dr. Lim and I were excited that we found common results between his blood transcriptome analyses and my GWAS of complete blood count. This connection will strengthen our collaboration and enhance confidence to cross-validate and further develop our findings to improve pig disease resilience. The pig resilience project is led by Mike Dyck at UAlberta and is a partnership with PigGen Canada with funding from Genome Canada and other agencies, including USDA NIFA.
Dr. Joan Lunney is an international authority on pig immunology and genomics, a research scientist at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, and a collaborator on the PRRS Pregnant Gilt Model (PGM) that aims to assess maternal and fetal factors that could be predictive of PRRS severity and resilience in fetal pigs. “This study affirmed the diversity of fetal pig anti-PRRSV response within each litter. It has set the stage for more detailed analyses now underway to probe for key markers of fetal pig PRRS resilience,” said Dr. Lunney in the swine workshop. Talking with Dr. Lunney afterwards, I felt very lucky to participate in the sampling work for PGM during my time at University of Saskatchewan. And I will never forget how well and efficiently it was organized by our collaborator, Dr. John Harding, a professor there.
Genome editing and livestock farm animals’ health and welfare
Genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9 to improve farm animals’ health and welfare continues to be a hot topic. The simple disruption of the CD163 gene is a recent breakthrough in gene editing in pigs, and confers complete resistance to PRRSV infection. It is the only method that can fully protect pigs from infection with PRRSV and thus also from transmitting it. Gentec collaborator Dr. Andrea Doeschl-Wilson and her group at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, developed a genetic-epidemiological model to predict how gene editing may affect PRRS outbreaks and whether the dispersion of gene-edited pigs in a commercial pig herd could help to eradicate this devastating disease at a national level. Considering many different scenarios, Dr. Doeschl-Wilson suggests that PRRS eradication through gene editing alone is not feasible and would require large proportions of gene-edited pigs. Complementary methods, such as vaccination and introduction of genetically resilient pigs, are being explored in current Gentec projects with collaborators around the world. These findings would be significant to achieve the hitherto unprecedented opportunity to eradicate PRRS and improve pig health in the face of challenged commercial environments in the future.
It is always exciting to make new friends and meet Gentec people and old friends during the conference. PAG is such an informative meeting that offers a fantastic opportunity to catch up on the latest advances and technologies. I highly recommend this meeting as a great place to learn. Beyond this, PAG provides practical and informative workshops to train students and postdocs for academic and industry jobs with the latest tools and technologies, which can be applied to our studies and research work immediately. As representatives of UAlberta and Gentec, we will share our learning and experience with our friends, colleagues and collaborators.

Posted in Academic.