Animal breeding course provides keys to new gene tests

Published 03 February 2010

dnaScientists and research students from five continents, who are participating in the ninth annual Armidale Animal Breeding Summer Course, are becoming familiar with the latest genetic technologies for predicting the performance of individual farm animals.

They are part of what one of the leaders of the Summer Course, Professor Rohan Fernando from Iowa State University in the United States, called “a huge revolution all over the world”.

The Summer Course, at the University of New England, has attracted participants from France, Korea, Argentina, The United States and New Zealand, as well as from around Australia.

Professor Fernando and his Iowa State University colleague, Professor Dorian Garrick, are leading a five-day module of the course this week, during which they are explaining the theory underlying the use of gene sequencing technology in predicting an animal’s performance.

“Before this theory, we used knowledge of an animal’s appearance and performance – and its offspring’s performance – in making such assessments,” Professor Garrick said. “This took time and money. Now, however, we can read the DNA the moment an animal is born and make our assessment based on that. Unlike wine, the genes of an animal don’t improve with age, so the sooner we can make the assessment the better.”

The technology is still in its “early days”, Professor Garrick said. Companies have begun to commercialise some of the gene tests, however, and industries – such as the Australian dairy and beef industries – are beginning to use them. While there is obviously a cost to industry in introducing the new technology, there is every chance that the benefits will outweigh the costs in making industries more productive. Scientists are keen to assess the cost/benefit ratio of the technology as it becomes more widely used.

Last week’s module in the Summer Course, which was titled “Application of evolutionary algorithms to solve complex problems in quantitative genetics and bioinformatics”, was conducted by UNE’s Professor Brian Kinghorn and Dr Cedric Gondro. Altogether, the Animal Breeding Summer Course is running from Wednesday 27 January to Friday 5 February.

UNE’s Animal Breeding Summer Course has become known around Australia and throughout the world as a source of current information on animal genetics at an advanced level, and a meeting place for young geneticists. “UNE is the only university in Australia to teach postgraduate courses at this level,” said UNE’s Professor Julius van der Werf, the coordinator of the Summer Course.

“It’s important for all young scientists to start networking,” Professor van der Werf said, “and this course is designed not only to communicate the latest developments in breeding practice and genetic theory, but also to facilitate networking at both national and international levels.”

Professor Garrick, who is participating in the course for the first time, confirmed its high international reputation, and its ability to attract “stimulating” groups of world-leading scientists and postgraduate students. Professor Fernando added that the material from the course – made available on the Internet every year – was widely used around the world.

Clicking on the image displayed here reveals a photograph of (from left) Professor Julius van der Werf, Professor Dorian Garrick, Professor Rohan Fernando, and Professor Brian Kinghorn.