U.S. Shorts Critical Animal Research, AgBioResearch Scientists Say at Cattle Genome Milestone

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Inadequate federal funding poses a threat to the completion of the domestic cattle genome sequence. (view larger image)

The landmark sequencing of the domestic cattle genome, reported in the March 24 issue of the journal Science, could lead to important new findings about health and nutrition, a participating Michigan State University researcher said. But inadequate federal funding jeopardizes important farm animal and biomedical research, said other MAES scientists quoted in a paper published in the same issue.

Theresa Casey, research assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, joined 300 colleagues around the world in a six-year project to complete, annotate and analyze the bovine genome sequence. Now researchers can conclude that the human genome is closer to the 22,000-gene bovine sequence than to those of mice or rats, which are by far the more common research subjects.

The new data is especially important given the economic and nutritional importance of cattle to humans, said Casey, whose specialty is study of lactation and mammary gland biology. She also co-authored a related report appearing in the journal Genome Biology discussing how the bovine lactation genome sheds light on the evolution of mammalian milk.

“We believe that milk evolved primarily as an immune function,” she said, in part because of cow milk’s antimicrobial properties.

“Hopefully, we get the point across in the articles that, by doing agricultural research, we can understand much more about the world—trying to feed the world as well as keeping ourselves healthy,” she said.

But funding for such research is nowhere near adequate, said a group of researchers.

Only $32 million of the $88 billion 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture budget went toward competitive research grants for farm animals, wrote MAES animal science researchers James Ireland, George Smith, Jose Cibelli and five colleagues from other institutions. The proportion of the National Institutes of Health budget for extramural support of human health research is more than 900 times larger, they said, even though U.S. livestock and poultry sales exceed $132 billion annually.

With dwindling state and federal support, animal science programs are withering at American institutions, the scientists said. Not only are certain farm animal species themselves facing threats—poultry, in particular, faces loss of breed genetic diversity—but human health studies also might suffer from lack of funding for large-animal research.

Though more difficult and costly to maintain, farm animals are often better research subjects than rats and mice, and size often does matter, Ireland said. Chickens contract hard-to-detect ovarian cancer as humans do, for example, and pigs are highly suitable for obesity, cardiovascular and alcohol consumption research.

“The cow is an excellent model for studies on reproduction in the human,” Ireland explained, “because it’s one of the few species that actually has follicular growth dynamics very similar to what takes place in humans.”

Ireland and colleagues want increased federal consideration for large-animal models in grant awards and for establishment of dedicated research centers. Agriculture and veterinary schools also should recruit “nontraditional faculty members” prepared to interact with the broader lifesciences community, they wrote, to seek National Institutes of Health funding and help break barriers that isolate agricultural programs.

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