The future of Jersey genomics

7/26/2014 7:00 AM

Katelyn Parsons

Washington, D.C. Correspondent

Genomics through the work of both individuals and international research collaborations has facilitated significant breakthroughs in breeding cattle, including Jerseys. This field of work has enabled greater accuracy in prediction of individual genetic merit.

Jersey dairy cattle began using genomics in 2009. Just five years later, the outlook for the future trends in genomics for Jersey cattle was panel discussion during the recent 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Jersey Cattle Association and the National All-Jersey Inc.

“Genomics gives producers the power and precision to identify an animal’s true genetic merit,” said Cari Wolfe, American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey Inc., director of research and genetic program development. “When we just looked at pedigrees, the reliability was just 40 percent. Through adding performance and progeny the reliability went up to 50 percent.

“But the art of dairy cattle breeding has changed. For Jerseys that happened in 2009 with the inclusion of DNA or genomics which makes predictions far more reliable. Currently we are getting reliabilities of about 60 percent on heifers and young bulls.”

This type of information adds precision and allows dairymen to make better business decisions according to Wolfe. But there is more work for Jersey breeders to do.

“As a breed, the Jerseys can collect phenotypes, phenotypes measures and get highly accurate information for the traits that they want to select for,” said Michael Bishop, Ph.D., animal agriculture specialist for the Americas at Illumina Inc. “Whether those traits are linear, production or disease-related we need more information. I don’t think we have defined all the phenotypes quite correctly yet. The more genotype information available in the database the more accurate and predictive results can be.”

However, that shouldn’t discount the progress that has been made in the Jersey breed from the addition of genomics.

“This new technology has caused a revolution,” said George Wiggins, Ph.D., USDA Agricultural Research Service Animal Genomics and Improvement Laboratory research geneticist. “We can half the generational interval. That’s important so we can speed up progress. This benefits everyone in the breed.”

And the companies involved in this process are looking for ways to speed up their turnaround time with results.

“There is DNA in every tissue,” said Jeremy Walker, director of customer solutions and marketing at GeneSeek. “It’s fairly easy to access DNA on any tissue that may come into a lab, whether it’s a hair follicle, blood, semen or an ear notch. For us the biggest challenge is how we can automate the process.”

According to Walker, GeneSeek employs dozens of technicians to punch hair follicles to extract DNA.

“It’s tough to find robotics that can look for individual hair follicles and punch the DNA out,” Walker said. “So we have to explore other types of sample that we can automate while still being user-friendly. If we can do this, the cost will be cheaper.”

According to Walker out of the all the samples that come to his company’s lab as tissue, about 75 percent are hair follicles. Although Walker does point out that the process doesn’t generally take more than a week.

“In general it takes about a day to collect the DNA, another three days to collect all the genetic marker information and then another day or two to complete the data analysis before the information is passed on for further interrogation,” Walker said. “So from start to finish this process only takes six or seven days.”

However, according to Walker, his company receives most of the tissue samples close to the reporting deadline.

“We do our best with turnaround at that time,” Walker said. “But I’d like to challenge all breeders to try to spread out the sample delivery date across the month so we can do better on turnaround.”

According to Bishop, new technologies may increase turnaround time as well.

“Perhaps one day we will be able to provide a USB chip to slide into your computer that can evaluate your hair follicle,” Bishop said. “Then you can come back in hour to find the results. But we aren’t there yet.”

Genomics has been a priority for the Jersey breed over the last few years. In fact, according to Wolfe, the association recently launched a page on its website,, to help the process.

Besides faster turnaround times, the Jersey breeders wanted to know if their breed’s accuracy with genomics would catch Holsteins in the near future.

“Holstein’s accuracy will continue to increase as the percent of their population that has been DNA tested continues to grow,” Wiggins said. “The same goes for Jerseys. The more animals that Jersey breeders test, the closer they will come to matching Holstein’s accuracy.”

All the companies involved with genomics are looking to innovate and as new technologies are developed they will slowly trickle down to the animal field, according to Bishop.

“What we can conceive, we can achieve,” Bishop said.

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