In 2015, Jared Decker received a $2 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture with the goal of creating genetic and genomic predictions that would allow producers, farmers and ranchers to identify the cattle that are going to perform the best in their specific environment.
Troy Rowan arrived at the University of Missouri in 2016 – and has spent the past two and a half years as part of Decker’s grant.
“We’re trying to find the genetic basis for how cattle match to certain environments around the United States,” Rowan said. “Our ultimate goal is to find ways to match cattle to their environments so that producers can make educated decisions about which animals are going to work best for them.”
Rowan’s work earned him a spot at the Biology of Genomes Meeting, which takes place May 7-11, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Rowan gave a podium presentation at the meeting, one of the most prestigious genomics meetings in the world, where he highlighted the group’s work.
“I wrote an abstract for the meeting and hit the submit button,” Rowan said. “I really didn’t think I would hear anything back. When I got the email, I was shocked. It’s an awesome, awesome honor for sure. The people who are the founding fathers of genomics were at the meeting. There was a sparse representation of agriculture, so I was really excited to showcase our cattle research.”
Rowan earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Creighton University before coming to MU as a graduate student in the Genetics Area Program under Decker, an associate professor in the Division of Animal Sciences and state beef Extension specialist. Rowan is using models to look at changes in DNA variants over time in an attempt to figure out how those variants alter traits under selection.
“We’re studying which area of the animal’s DNA have been under strong selection in certain environments,” Rowan said. “We’re finding ways to then group the cattle together based on shared environments. Our task is then to figure out what’s genetically different about these populations.”
Rowan’s data comes from collaborations with three breed associations – American Simmental Association, Red Angus Association of America and American Gelbvieh Association.
“The breed associations collect DNA from producers across the country,” Rowan said. “They’re collecting DNA and doing genomics in house to enhance their own predictions. But that’s the end of the life of those genotypes. We’ve gone to the associations and asked if they could share those genotypes so that we can do further research. Everything we find, we feed right back to them to implement how they see fit.
“This relationship is huge for us. The data they are sharing with us would have cost a lot of money and a lot of hours in sample collection.”
While the research has been exciting for Rowan, he said the project has had its challenges. Since he’s in uncharted territory, he has to be careful with each step.
“Everything that we find, we’re trying to find what matters and whether it makes sense with what we’re doing,” Rowan said. “You have to find a balance. All of what we’re doing is computational. It’s important to tie what we’re finding on the computer to what’s biologically happening in the real world. I really enjoy making those connections.”
A recent result Rowan happened upon was a gene related to cold climates.
“We found a strong selection in cold climates for this one gene, which has been identified in other cattle populations in Siberia as a cold-tolerant gene,” Rowan said. “It’s always exciting to find some genes that make sense. This was a really cool result.”
Rowan grew up on a purebred Charolais cattle operation in southwest Iowa. He originally wanted to be a pharmacist or medical doctor when he attended Creighton, but he soon realized he missed the cattle. Upon graduation, he was able to secure a research position at MU and a passion for cattle research was born.
“I wanted to give back to agriculture on the scientific side of things,” Rowan said. “I am really focused on staying connected with cattle producers. Mizzou has been the perfect place to not only work with producers but also work with world-class researchers.”
With more results coming and an opportunity to speak at a prestigious genomics meeting under his belt, Rowan will next be heading to Scotland during the fall. He will be working with a group to do simulations to validate the methods they have been using in their current research.
He is on schedule to graduate in the spring or summer of 2020 and will then look for postdoctoral opportunities related to cattle research. His end goal is to become a professor at a land-grant university doing his own flavor of cattle research.
“Being at MU has opened so many doors for me,” Rowan said. “I’m never bored. At a lot of universities that have exceptional cattle genetics programs, they have one thing that they do really well. At Mizzou, we have experts in every area. It’s an exciting research environment.
“We also tie everything we do back to the producer. Sometimes when you sit behind a computer all day you forget the application side of the equation and why you’re doing what you’re doing. You have to get out and have conversations with producers and the public. Our research does no good if the producers can’t put it to use.”