Beef gene bank serves as disease safety net

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 20, 2004
by WLJ
USDA's Agriculture Research Service (ARS) is in the process of developing a gene bank of at least 50 unrelated sires from every recognized breed of cattle. These embryos and semen are being kept in case of a disease outbreak and also as a means for genetic research.
Harvey Blackburn, geneticist and coordinator of the Fort Collins, CO, based National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation said the project is still in the process of getting things off the ground. The gene banking project first began with plants in the 1950s. It was not until 1999 that the center received its first animal sample. But, thanks to the efforts of producers and breed associations, Blackburn indicated they are well on their way to reaching the goal of storing genes from at least 50 unrelated sires from every breed.
At the present time, the gene bank has samples from 450 bulls stored. Some material is still being processed, according to Blackburn, but a total of 500 bulls should be collected shortly. The semen from these bulls is stored in liquid nitrogen at the Fort Collins location.
Congress mandated the National Animal Germplasm Program become part of the Fort Collins Center in 1990. Blackburn said the goal is to collect enough semen and embryos for regeneration of the entire beef population, if that ever were ever necessary.
"Say if there was an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, that could endanger certain lines or breeds of cattle. We actually saw this happen in the UK with sheep—a lot of their commercial viable breeds produced in one area of the country were almost eliminated because of the quarantine rings," said Blackburn. "We want to be in a position that if something like that were to occur here in the U.S., we wouldn't necessarily be scrambling to make sure we had these breeds secured."
In order to be in a "safe" position, Blackburn says they need to collect at least 5,000 units of beef cattle semen. Currently, Salers are the only beef cattle breed that has been completed in the gene bank. However, Texas Longhorns will most likely be the next breed collection completed, with 55 percent of the bulls stored. Simmentals should follow, since the collection center is at 52 percent of where they want to be, and Herefords are expected after that, with 45 percent of its bulls already collected. With the enormity of the Angus breed, Blackburn said only about 25 percent of Angus bulls have been compiled thus far.
Last year, Blackburn collected enough samples from Holstein cattle to reintroduce the breed, in the unlikely event that was ever necessary. This meant collecting semen from 850 bulls and 150 embryos from 25 cows representing the diversity of the breed. Granted this is just one breed of dairy cattle, but Blackburn used this as an example to demonstrate exactly how many samples are needed for each breed to reintroduce the population.
A second benefit of gene banking is the potential for the samples to be used for genetic research. "The gene collection could serve as a place for industry researchers, university, or ARS researchers to come and utilize to do gene sequencing or gene discovery," said Blackburn. "If, for example, you have a breed, a line, or an individual that has unique genes, and a researcher wants to develop new lines that have a high frequency of those particular genes, they could search through the repository bulls and use those bulls to try and make that development."
ARS researchers have accomplished a similar feat with the plant gene bank. Blackburn said they have had researchers looking for a resistance to a particular disease who have searched through their collection and tried several varieties to make the crosses they want to test to see whether or not they can develop disease resistant lines.
Hypothetically from the beef prospective, Blackburn said the same principal could be applied to determine which bulls produce tender beef, or any of the other qualitative genes producers are now selecting for.
In order for a breed to be used for genetic improvement or testing, additional samples will need to be collected.
A good portion of the semen collected in the repository comes directly from producers. Breed associations have also been very helpful to the preservation center. According to Blackburn, this is done on a strictly voluntary basis and producers are not compensated in anyway.
"The response from the beef cattle industry has been phenomenal," said Blackburn.
The gene bank also contains samples from many varieties of chickens, cattle, swine, sheep, goats, farmed fish, such as rainbow and trout, as well as 450,000 seed types.
Producers wanting more information on the gene bank or how they can submit samples to the gene bank for collection can contact Blackburn at 970/495-3268 or visit their web site at — Sarah L. Swenson, WLJ Associate Editor