$1.3 Million Grant Awarded to UMD Researcher to Develop Precision Breeding Techniques in Livestock

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

July 17, 2018 Samantha Watters

College Park, MD —The University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has received a $1.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new cutting-edge precision breeding technologies for livestock, specifically focusing on cattle and goats. Dr. Bhanu Telugu, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, leads a team that will work to expand the scope of current breeding programs by establishing an accelerated pathway for the introduction of traits that improve heat tolerance and increase milk yield.

As a result of a changing climate, animals are suffering from heat stress in the United States and elsewhere in ways not previously seen, affecting animal welfare as well as overall production. Additionally, a growing population worldwide adds to the stress of maximizing production in the wake of diminishing resources. This gives urgency to the development of more efficient and responsive agricultural practices and breeding techniques.

“Genetic modification in livestock by humans is not a new concept,” says Telugu. “When two animals of perceived high genetic merit are bred, it leads to mixing of the genomes. This has been the backbone of genetic diversity (and evolution) and generation of unique breeds from livestock to pets.” Modern breeding techniques have already come a long way in increasing production, with research looking at the genetic makeup of animals to select and breed for beneficial traits. During the last 50 years, milk production from dairy animals in the United States was doubled by following traditional breeding paradigms and better management practices. But every time you breed two animals for a trait, you are diluting the genetic merit, like mixing blue and yellow to make green. Each offspring has a little less of the trait you want, so in order to really incorporate one new trait into a population, you traditionally need many generations of breeding, a process that takes about 15-30 years.

Now, with technologies such as CRISPR/Cas allowing for easy gene editing, Telugu is looking at what we know about genetic fragments that are linked to specific desirable traits and how we can input these traits into a population in just a single generation of breeding, taking only 3 years instead of 30. “If we have genetic scissors, and we know where to cut, then cutting and pasting the best traits into a new animal has got to be the most efficient way to incorporate a new trait,” explains Telugu. “With this work, we are not only validating the genetic research that tells us which sections matter for which specific traits, but also looking to solve serious issues that couldn’t be otherwise addressed.”

Telugu is excited to start this work and combine basic research and practical application to address global issues. “Heat stress has become a serious issue in the United States in the last decade or so,” explains Telugu. “That is how quickly these problems are growing and changing. Combine that with new emerging diseases and the need to feed 3 billion more people over the next 30 years, and we are faced with serious issues that traditional breeding methods don’t work quickly enough to solve. I am excited to be able to work on these important applications and still contribute to the greater knowledge of functional genomics, which is my focus as a researcher.”