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Eliminate pregnancy losses in beef cattle with CRISPR / Cas9 technology

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Calves on the ground ultimately mean dollars in the pocket and steaks in the meat crate. It is the basis of the beef industry.

However, inefficient reproduction costs the cattle industry billions each year. Most of this is due to embryonic mortality and pregnancy loss, said Ky Pohler, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and chair of the area of ​​excellence in pregnancy and cancer programming. development at Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“We are conducting a series of studies to assess what is really important for the development of pregnancy,” said Pohler. “We want to determine how much of the loss is from the physiology of the animal versus how much is genetic.”



When a cow loses gestation or suffers embryonic death, she may not become pregnant again during that breeding season.

Cow-calf operations depend on obtaining a live calf with each pregnancy. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

“Beef producers are paid in pounds of weaned veal or live calf,” Pohler said. “If there is no calf born, then there is no profit. And the producer input costs continue to rise. Our cow-calf operations have to become more efficient, otherwise we will not be able to maintain them.



A recent $ 500,000 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will fund Pohler’s project to advance understanding embryonic mortality and loss of gestation in cows.

The project, Physiological Function of Prostaglandins and Pregnancy Associated Glycoproteins in Late Embryonic Mortality in Cattle, is one of a series of studies conducted by Pohler to assess various aspects of the development of a pregnancy.

The success of the study should provide fundamental information on the physiological and molecular mechanisms associated with embryonic survival and mortality in beef cattle. This knowledge will provide a better understanding of the causes and potential strategies to prevent these reproductive losses, which cause major economic problems for the cattle and dairy industries.

Application of knockout genetic technology

The new grant allows Pohler’s team to study gene knockouts, using CRISPR / Cas9 technology in cattle.

“Basically you take out a single gene and see what happens with the developing embryo when you do that. Does the pregnancy go on or does it end there?” He said. We are excited to start using this technology in our projects to truly understand pregnancy and developmental programming. ”

Pohler said their study aims to show the impact of a family of genes called pregnancy-associated glycoproteins, or PAGS. These proteins have been known for years; they are the basis of blood and milk-based pregnancy tests in cattle. The team will delete these genes one at a time to determine if they are important for the development of the pregnancy.

“We know ways to minimize pregnancy loss,” he said. “But we don’t know how to eliminate it because we don’t know what the real causes are. This is an opportunity to understand the causes, then to develop management strategies specific to these causes.

Developing more than a dressing for pregnancy loss in beef cattle

The most economically important thing on a cow-calf operation is pregnancy.

“All the other things we do are important, but pregnancy is 20 times more financially important than any other production trait,” Pohler said. “If you go down to the consumer level, if you don’t have the pregnancy, you will never realize the potential of this animal to generate a steak for the consumer.”

That is why he is focusing on ending embryonic mortality.

Pohler said he tells people the current industry practices are like putting a band-aid on the situation – “like, I know if I do this it will help me decrease it, but it won’t. not help to eliminate it, so we want to understand what the real mechanisms are and how to eliminate them. “

Will pregnancy loss ever be completely eliminated? No, said Pohler.

“But we can develop genetic tests. We can develop other types of tools to help minimize this loss. I think what we can do is develop better management strategies.

One of the other projects that Pohler and his team are working on is to determine to what extent the contribution to embryonic mortality comes from the bull and the cow.

“We are studying all aspects of the issue,” he said. “This project is really focused on women. But there is also a whole opportunity on the side of the bulls. And I think understanding both sides is going to be critical. If it ends up being on the bull’s side and you can develop a genetic test, there are a lot fewer bulls than cows. So you can have a much bigger impact in less time. If it ends up being on the cow’s side, it will take a lot longer to have that impact. “

Using technology at the ranch level

Currently, Pohler estimates that only about 25% of beef producers use pregnancy diagnosis in their herds, even though the technology has been around for years.

Using pregnancy diagnosis can help determine when an animal is losing a pregnancy. With technology and better management practices, this producer can be more efficient in the generation of calves, have animals with better genetics than the previous year and produce a more uniform calf crop. All of these things help to make a producer’s beef cattle operation more financially viable.

“Don’t adopt technology for the sake of adopting technology,” Pohler said. “Use the technology you need to get where you need to go. You must enter the value.

–Texas A and M


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