Scientists predict improvements in breeding, health research
By TIM HEARDEN
A breakthrough in the nearly 20-year quest to map the genome of swine heralds enhancements in pig breeding as well as in conservation and human and animal medicine, experts say.
The announcement on Nov. 2 that an international team of scientists completed the first draft of the genome of a domesticated pig represented an important "first step," said Paul Sundberg, the National Pork Board's vice president of science and technology.
The scientists' next task will be to identify specific amino acid sequences that control different characteristics such as health, meat quality and growth, Sundberg said.
Then the researchers will have to determine which characteristics are the most desirable and how to enhance them, he said.
"It can't be understated how important this is," Sundberg said. "You've got to have the first basic foundation of understanding the sequence of amino acids in the DNA of the pig in order to go further."
Other experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere said the project will offer insight into swine disease and help with preservation of rare, endangered and wild pigs. The findings could also help the study of human health because pigs' physiology is similar to humans.
"The pig is a unique animal that is important for food and that is used as an animal model for human disease," project leader Larry Schook, a University of Illinois professor of biomedical sciences, said in a statement. He was out of the country last week and could not be reached.
Because the animal still exists in the wild, scientists will also be able to learn about the genomic effects of domestication, Schook said.
Researchers selected a red-haired Duroc pig from a university farm to use in the sequencing project. The project cost about $24.3 million.
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture contributed $10 million. Other contributors included the National Pork Board, the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the North Carolina Pork Council, the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, several U.S. universities and more than a half-dozen international donors.
The achievement comes on the heels of an announcement in April that a U.S.-led international team of 300 scientists completed a six-year quest to sequence the bovine genome.
While the dairy industry "has had a long head start" in developing breeding practices and technologies, a majority of pigs are now bred through artificial insemination rather than naturally, Sundberg said.
As has been the case with cows, private companies will likely join the public sector in driving the identification of gene sequences in pigs, Sundberg said.
"You can expect there will be some competition to be the first to identify different genes that affect production," he said. "If you can do that ... you'll have some economic advantage in the marketplace.
"There will be some capitalistic competition to identify genes in certain strains and certain families and to sell those," he said. "That will speed up the process."