The SABRE project: bringing advanced genetics to the farmyard
EU-funded scientists are applying the latest genetic techniques to aid in the development of profitable farming systems that produce safe, high quality food while reducing their environmental impact and maintaining high animal welfare standards. Almost 200 researchers from 33 organisations in 14 countries are involved in the SABRE ('Cutting edge genomics for sustainable animal breeding') project, which is financed under the 'Food quality and safety' Thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) with EUR 13.9 million.
The project partners are focusing their efforts on pigs, dairy cattle and chickens. Since embarking on the project in 2006, the team has made considerable progress in a number of areas.
For example, the scientists have sequenced and analysed chromosomes 7 and 14 in the pig. This valuable data will not only help other researchers working on pigs; it will also contribute to efforts to compare the genomes of different animals.
Elsewhere, the researchers have mapped the genes responsible for higher levels of boar taint. Boar taint occurs when certain naturally occurring, unpleasant smelling compounds build up in the meat of male pigs that have not been castrated. When present in high levels, these compounds affect the aroma and flavour of the cooked meat.
A good deal of work has also gone into improving the quality of egg shells; the team has identified a number of genes that display different levels of activity in the shell gland, and the scientists are now planning to examine how this variation could be linked to shell quality.
Another breakthrough involving eggs concerns the egg cuticle, which plays a key role in blocking out potentially harmful infections. SABRE scientists have come up with a method of determining how much of the cuticle coverage is determined by genetics. Eventually, this knowledge could lead to the selection of hens with the best cuticle genes, leading to better food safety for consumers.
'It's extremely encouraging to see so many valuable results already emerging from SABRE,' commented Project Coordinator Chris Warkup of the Genesis Faraday Partnership in the UK. 'Especially (…) as the sort of basic research involved (…) takes a considerable time to deliver its greatest benefits.'
Cows also feature heavily in the project, and here the scientists are shedding new light on genetic markers that may influence a cow's resistance to mastitis. Mastitis is an udder infection that affects some 30% of dairy cattle and costs the EU dairy industry over EUR 1.5 billion per year. Selective breeding of cows with in-built genetic resistance to mastitis could therefore save Europe's dairy farmers vast sums of money.
In addition to all this, the researchers have developed advanced new breeding software that allows users to perform genetic evaluations of large populations of animals in a small space of time. The project's industrial partners are now testing the software in their breeding programmes and a business plan is under preparation.
'The fact that we are seeing such solid gains this early in the process is a testament to the good science and hard work being undertaken by our project partners across Europe and beyond,' said Mr Warkup. 'It bodes extremely well for the full value sabre will deliver throughout its project life and beyond.'