November 3, 2009
AMES, Iowa — The completion of a first draft of the pig genome sequence has extra meaning for Iowa, the nation's leading producer of pigs, says an Iowa State University professor who was part of the international research team. "With Iowa's number-one ranking, the knowledge we gain from this important scientific advance will add to the competitive advantage of our producers," said Max Rothschild, who has served as the U.S. Pig Genome Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1993. "But ultimately, it's consumers who'll benefit," Rothschild said. "Besides improved pork products, the sequence, or DNA structure, of the pig genome may yield new information important to human health. You can't pick a better model for studying human diseases than the pig. A deeper understanding of the pig genome should translate into enormous opportunities for treating obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other problems." On Monday, Nov. 2, an international team of scientists, including Rothschild, announced that the first draft of the genome of a domesticated pig was completed. The University of Illinois led the project. ISU's Rothschild was one of the team's co-directors, who were based at seven institutions in four countries. The $24.3 million public-private partnership was funded by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture as well as funding and technical support from many others, including Iowa State University and the Iowa Pork Producers Association. "We're excited about the possibilities this scientific breakthrough has for not only pork production, but the implications for human health as well," said Rich Degner, executive director of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. "This is an important step in the industry's efforts to continue producing a safe, nutritious source of protein for the world," Degner said. "IPPA has an excellent working relationship with Iowa State University and we're pleased to be able to contribute to the university's efforts in this all-important research." The first draft is an important step to be able to answer many questions about the pig. Iowa State is using genetic sequences identified in the genome project to hunt down genes important for reproduction, feed efficiency, growth rate and disease resistance. "It's cutting-edge work," said Rothschild. "We're looking for genes associated with a variety of pig production traits. The goal is improved genetics that allows selection of pigs with more favorable growth and health properties, which would increase producers' profits." The advances in swine genomics have led to new research tools. Rothschild said Iowa State contributed to the development of a new technology that dramatically increases the number of genes that can be evaluated simultaneously for traits. Called the porcine 60K SNP chip, the technology has proven faster, cheaper and much more accurate than previous methods to study the pig's genetic makeup. "This should help to make a positive impact on swine production profits by identifying a variety of traits that are hard to improve through traditional selection methods," he said. "We hope to be able to use the knowledge gained to help decrease production costs by several dollars per pig in the near future." A major cost for pork producers is buying young sows, or gilts, to replace animals in their herds. "We believe we'll be able to identify genes that allow sows to be kept in the herd longer," Rothschild said. "Improved genetics may reduce the number of sows that are culled each year, creating a large savings for producers through lower replacement gilt costs and healthier piglets that gain higher disease immunity by nursing from more mature sows." Rothschild said scientists also have found genes linked to improved leg structure that could be used to reduce the number of animals culled each year because of leg problems. One of Rothschild's roles in the pig genome project has been to keep the public and industry updated on research progress. As draft genetic sequences have been completed, they have been shared widely on a pig genome website. Rothschild is a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences in the Department of Animal Science. He also is director of ISU's Center for Integrated Animal Genomics and holds ISU's Ensminger International Chair, an endowed position that supports international activities in animal science.