A Well Regarded Chip

University of Missouri researchers honored by USDA secretary

A cattle genomics consortium from the University of Missouri and USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland has been awarded a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary’s Honor Award.

These awards are the most prestigious given by the USDA. They provide high-level recognition to deserving USDA employees and private citizens who have made outstanding contributions supporting USDA’s mission.

The recipients from MU are Jerry Taylor, professor and Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics, and Robert Schnabel, research assistant professor. Both are animal genomics researchers in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Division of Animal Sciences. They are part of the Cattle Genomics Consortium, which earned the award.

The consortium is lead by Curtis Van Tassell and Tad Sonstegard, research geneticists at the USDA ARS in Beltsville.  The Honor Awards Program was created in 1947 and is presented by the Secretary of Agriculture. The team was recognized at a ceremony in Washington DC on August 3.

The consortium was recognized for its work developing the Illumina BovineSNP50 BeadChip, an inexpensive and easily used device that evaluates genetic merit and investigates genomic positions of important genes in both dairy and beef cattle.

Taylor and Schnabel were part of the consortium that developed the device. Often referred to as a SNP chip, it allows scientists to obtain information concerning the DNA nucleotides that are present in an animal at over 50,000 predetermined positions within the genome. This assay has been applied internationally within the dairy and beef industries to implement a new technique for genetic improvement known as genomic selection. This approach allows the estimation of an animal’s genetic merit at birth from a DNA sample that may be obtained from hair roots or even a nose swab.

The BovineSNP50 assay is being used by breed associations and individual breeders across the US, Canada and in at least nine other countries. This widespread use is demonstrated by the growth of genotypic data present in the national dairy database, which grew from 16,646 animals genotyped with the BovineSNP50 assay in January 2009 to 45,870 genotyped animals in April 2010.

The BovineSNP50 BeadChip is the de facto standard for cattle genomics research and genetic prediction around the globe. Since its inception in 2007, sales of the BovineSNP50 now total more than 400,000 chips. Methodologies developed from this work serve as the model for development of similar genomic tools for other livestock, vegetable and crop species.

Results of this team’s effort have had a major impact on the dairy artificial insemination industry, the USDA award notes. Predictions of genetic merit made through SNP data are now actively being used to make selection decisions on bulls by Holstein breeders. The industry received immediate benefits from substantial gains in the accuracies of predicted genetic merits early in an animal’s life, allowing easier identification of superior animals at a lower cost. This permits more rapid genetic progress.

Due to the progress made by implementation of the technology developed by the members of the consortium, farmers who wish to sell elite female genetics must genotype their cows, and bulls that have not been genotyped are no longer competitive in the marketplace.

Schnabel earned his doctorate in genetics from Texas A&M University and joined MU in 2002 following a postdoctoral period at the USDA ARS in Beltsville. He has previously won USDA ARS Technology Transfer and Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer awards for the development of BovineSNP50 assay.  He is currently conducting research to identify mutations responsible for neurological disease in dog models, for economically important traits of beef and dairy cattle and to identify hybridization in bison.

Taylor’s doctorate was earned from the University of New England, Australia. He joined MU in 2002 following an appointment as Director of Genomics at the Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

The MU animal genomics group is involved in research to utilize DNA markers for the prediction of genetic merit for economically important traits in cattle, including disease susceptibility, feed efficiency, milk production, reproduction and growth.

Last year the group unveiled a method of using SNP chips to identify the “family tree” for ruminants that reconstructed the evolutionary relationships among species diverged by as much as 29 million years.  This discovery allows scientists to better understand the evolution of cattle and other animals which has implications for conservation efforts among species and endangered cattle breeds.

The same techniques can be used to better study the bases of human genetic diseases. For example, the use of dog SNP chips has allowed the comparative neurology group at MU, of which Taylor and Schnabel are members, to identify the genes responsible for several neurological diseases in dogs and when disrupted, these genes likely cause very similar diseases in humans.