THE seedstock landscape is evolving fast, especially as gene editing labs get closer to commercialisation of new gene editing tools for livestock.
US genomics company AgGenetics, Tennessee, has partnered with one such lab and is presently seeking investment partners for its white Angus and other genetics projects.
White Angus cattle, with a greatly improved heat tolerance, are now close to being a commercial reality and those at AgGenetics believe northern Australia will be one of the fastest take-up regions.
AgGenetics founder and chief financial officer James West said as a genetic base they are starting with some champion bulls they already own.
These bulls will be “gene edited” (essentially the same process as genetic modification but between the same species) to introduce desirable traits. The resulting bulls will have semen collected for sale.
The process for white Angus will initially use cloning. The cloned embryos will be edited to contain the white hair gene from silver Galloway and the short hair gene from Senepol.
However, he said they were also investigating the transplanting of spermatagonial stem cells into bison/bovine hybrids.
“We’ll be able to do it faster and cheaper into the future by modifying the spermatagonial stem cells and putting these into those bovine hybrids,” Mr West said.
The technology, at this stage, allows single genes to be moved, hence why they’re starting with traits such as hair colour.
“If you find a high heritability trait you like in one breed, you can move it into another breed quickly and cheaply,” he said, agreeing this included possibilities such as dropping the highly heritable Wagyu marbling trait (heritability of 0.8) into a breed such as Brahman, without adding other genes.
The initial work with the white Angus project is expected to bring an improvement in heat tolerance of a little over 8 degrees Celsius, with no losses in production, carcase or meat eating qualities.
AgGenetics’ business model estimated the white and short hair genes when added to Angus could add $12 billion in value to Australia’s beef industry.
Dr West, who runs a laboratory at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee with more than 20 employees and more than $5 million in annual funding, said the new white Angus cattle would not start developing any heat stress at all until around 32 degrees Celsius.
The commercial introduction of this technology also had the potential to change the seedstock industry structure by adding a new “top layer” above where parent herds traditionally sat.
However, such companies needed access to the top performing bulls as a genetic platform to add the desirable genes, so existing leading stud herds would potentially play a major role in the introduction of this technology.
“We’re going to understand on a genetic level in a way that’s currently not available with SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) chips,” Mr West said, referring especially to the benefits of improved accessibility for whole genome mapping as costs declined.
“Breedplan and expected progeny difference breeding has done great things, but it’s primitive compared to what’s going to happen in the next few years.
“What we’re doing with the white Angus is we’re moving the genes around, but the other half of the equation is knowing which genes you want.”
This capability was still being fine tuned.
One risk Mr West acknowledged was potential loss of important genetics to the overall gene pool, but he said this was unlikely.
This is because the cost of moving genes, plus different requirements in different environments meant most genes would likely be retained.
“We’re not going to make one super cow that we grow everywhere. What we’re going to do is take all of the breeds that are already well adapted to a particular niche and make them better.”
The aim of the company was to produce genetics which matched the animal’s feed and environment.
“I think the best way to do that is to start with an animal that’s already got a good fit.”
The plan from here for AgGenetics was to attract capital to broaden the number of breeds and sires for which it offered the technology.
AgGenetics was also considering a license for producers which inhibited them from reselling their modified semen. This would allow people to re-use the genetics in their own herds, as well as keep and sell the offspring of these modified sires.
University of New England animal breeding and genetics expert, Professor Julius Van der Werf, didn’t believe the rise of the technique in the US would drastically impact the way the Australian cattle industry operated.
“Some papers suggest the technique will have a huge impact on the genetic improvement of farm animals, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said.
“Gene editing targets single genes but there are only a few things in animals that are affected by single-gene mutations – mainly eye colour and hair colour.
“You can’t use gene editing to improve growth rates, marbling rates and disease resistance.”
He believed its application in beef production would be best suited to fixing genetic defects in famous family lines of bulls.
He said the traditional beef stud herd model would remain in place for the foreseeable future.
The technique was more likely to be taken up by the dairy industry which had a much greater reliance on artificial insemination.
“Top dairy bulls may have one million offspring, so it’s cost efficient to invest a few million to get the best genetics there.”
AgGenetics is already in discussions with Australian breeders interested in the heat-adapted genes.
With the first calves due in early 2017, it expects to have multiple heat tolerant lines ready for market in 2018.