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Genetics tool sought for hogs

Breeding pigs to have better immune responses means using fewer antibiotics and other medications

New research being led by the University of Guelph could help reduce the amount of medical intervention required in swine production.

As part of a $9.8-million national research project aimed at enhancing Canada’s pork industry, a team of researchers will work to develop genomics tools that select pigs able to resist multiple diseases, improve animal health and food quality. Funding for the massive project came from Genome Canada’s, Genomics and Feeding the Future, project competition.

Bonnie Mallard, a pathobiology professor in the Ontario Veterinary College, has already developed a patented immune response profiling tool — High Immune Response Technol­ogy — which the university describes as “using animal gen­etics and immune response to breed healthier animals naturally and safely.”

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The technology is currently licensed to Semex Alliance, but is only used in cattle. Mallard hopes this new research will expand its use.

“We are hoping for the same outcome in pigs, and that is the focus of our section of the Genome Canada application,” Mallard said. “I’m thrilled to be part of this large collaborative research program to investigate novel immunogenetic approaches to improve swine health.”

University of Guelph post-doctoral researcher, Julie Schmied, will test the technology for a range of infectious diseases in some 3,600 commercial pigs before the project is complete.

“The high immune response technology is a way to identify animals that just have a better immune system,” said Schmied. “There are likely two sides of the immune system… and we have a way of measuring both. We have a way of measur­ing the capacity for an antibody response and the capacity for a cell mediated response.”

And while pigs could be bred for resistance to one particular disease, such as porcine epidemic diarrhea, the researcher said it wouldn’t be an efficient way to create a stronger animal.

“You can breed for a single disease or pathogen, which is what people have tried to do in the past and that would be what would happen in a disease outbreak situation — you would be able to identify animals which were more resistant to a particular virus or bacteria that happened to infect your herd,” Schmied said. “But breeding for specific resistance in that sense can be really problematic… viruses change and evolve so quickly, that say you developed a line of pigs that was resistant to a single virus, that virus is really quickly going to mutate and become a new virus and all that work you’ve done doesn’t matter anymore.”

Instead she is seeking out the animals with the best overall immune response, no matter what the disease challenge might be.

“So we’re looking for an animal that’s very versatile in its immune response,” she said, adding that the stronger an animal’s immune system, the less medical intervention it will need. The result could be less antibiotics used and more effective vaccinations.

However, the project is still in the early stages.

“I want to be clear it’s not a genomics test at this point, it’s really in the early stages, so in terms of how it’s going to be rolled out to the market and how producers are going to access it, well there are a lot of components that of course would need to be discussed and hashed out,” said Schmied. “So if it’s successful we’d have to see how we’re going to… release the use of our test to the different pig companies within Canada.”

While Mallard is a principal investigator on the project, the team also includes experts from across Canada, including in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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