Iowa State University Protecting Pork: Harnessing genomics to improve livestock resilience

Biosecurity protocols and vaccinations help prevent or reduce disease in pigs, but some animals will still get sick. Disease leads to economic losses for farmers, dangers to food safety, and lowers the animals’ quality of life. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) costs the U.S. pork industry an estimated $640 million per year. The annual economic impact of all swine infectious diseases is estimated to be over $1.9 billion. 

Some pigs are more naturally resilient but identifying these pigs is problematic because the swine breeding industry raises their elite breeding animals in high-health farms. To address this, Dr. Dekkers and his international team utilized the swine genome to determine the genetic basis of differences in disease resilience between pigs. To capitalize on the genetics that makes some pigs hardier, the researchers are identifying and targeting unique biomarkers — a naturally occurring gene or molecule serving as a measurable indicator to accurately predict, in this case, disease resilience – that can be measured on healthy, young pigs. 

Once pertinent biomarkers are identified, the team will integrate the new genetic knowledge into breeding programs. This will guide future decisions on identifying more disease-resilient pigs to breed the next generation with improved immunity. This will improve swine performance, animal welfare, and food safety, as well as reduce the need for antibiotics on farms. 

This project will increase food security and sustainability, while decreasing disease-management costs for producers. The unique collaborations among international scientists and industry partners will allow results to be quickly implemented into breeding programs that impact pork producers across the globe. 

“My childhood dream was to become a veterinarian and I was very intrigued by genetics. My current work allows me to combine these two interests, demonstrating the power of using natural genetic differences to improve animal production and animal welfare.” 

– Jack Dekkers 

Retaking The Field Volume 4 “Retaking the Field: Science Breakthroughs for Thriving Farms and a Healthier Nation” is a collaborative report from 20 FedByScience universities and the SoAR Foundation. The report highlights research projects in the five Science Breakthroughs areas identified as the most important fields to advance in agriculture by the year 2030: genomics, microbiomes, sensors, data and informatics, and transdisciplinary research. View The Issue
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