Young geneticists find inspiration at UNE course

Published 12 February 2009

dnaResearch scientists and postgraduate students from around Australia, and visitors from Malaysia, France, Finland and Brazil, are taking part in an advanced genetics course at the University of New England.

UNE’s Animal Breeding Summer Course, now in its eighth year, is unique in Australia. It has become known around the country and throughout the world as a source of current information on animal genetics at an advanced level, and a meeting place for young geneticists. This year, a new topic of investigation has been the genetic factors contributing to the welfare of animals kept in groups.

An international leader in this field, Dr Piter Bijma from Wageningen University in The Netherlands, is leading this part of the course. Dr Bijma’s work is enabling breeders to select for animals that, although faster-growing, are not aggressive.

“Anything we measure on an animal depends on other animals,” Dr Bijma explained. “An animal can have a poor growth rate because it’s in a pen with a faster-growing, more aggressive animal. There has, traditionally, been a trade-off between welfare and yield in animal production. But by breeding more friendly animals we are hoping we can improve welfare and yield together.

“The growth rate of a pig, for example, depends very much on the genes of another pig in the group. If one has good genes for social interaction, the other will grow better.”

Among the 30 participants in the two-week Summer Course, which began on the 2nd of February, has been an international group of UNE postgraduate students. The course focused on the latest advances in quantitative genetic theory during the first week before, in the second week, turning to the breeding of “friendly” animals. The leader during the first week was Professor Bruce Walsh from the University of Arizona in the United States, a well-known evolutionary and quantitative geneticist.

Sarah Truran is one of three PhD students from the University of Adelaide taking part in the course. “It’s been fantastic,” Ms Truran said. “The teachers have amazing knowledge, and have given us valuable resources. I’m familiar with Dr Bijma’s work, and it’s great to hear from him in person.”

“UNE is the only university in Australia to teach postgraduate courses at this level,” said the course coordinator, Professor Julius van der Werf from UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science. “The popularity and effectiveness of the Summer Course confirm UNE’s role as a ‘centre of excellence’ in teaching animal genetics at this level. The material from these courses is mostly available on the Web, and I hear from many people around the world who use them.

“It’s important for all young scientist to start networking,” Dr van der Werf explained, “and this course, based on a European model, is designed not only to communicate the latest developments in breeding practice and genetic theory, but to facilitate networking at both national and international levels.”

A PHOTOGRAPH of participants in UNE’s Animal Breeding Summer Course, 2009, can be seen by clicking on the image displayed here.