NMBU-professor Theo Meuwissen has had a major impact on the genetic improvement of livestock and crops. On May 1st he receives the John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.
Genomic selection first became widely adopted in the dairy cattle industry where it was found to save considerable time and money compared to traditional breeding techniques. Genomic selection has now been applied to other animal species, such as pigs and poultry, as well as plants like cotton, rice, and wheat.
No Norwegian university academician has ever received the Carty award which is to “recognize noteworthy and distinguished accomplishments in any field of science”. The $25,000 prize is awarded by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
“I was amazed when I received the letter that I would receive the award together with Prof. Mike Goddard from the University of Melbourne”, Meuwissen says.
The two professors receive the award for their work on the development of genomic selection - uniting quantitative genetic theory with genomics technology, revolutionizing the genetic improvement of livestock and crops.
The genetic marker solution
For the past 10,000 years or so, humans have used selective breeding to domesticate and improve livestock and crop species, from corn to cattle. Animals or plants with desired traits were selected and bred, gradually producing species, breeds, or strains with specific qualities, such as dairy cattle that produce more milk, or the many forms of cabbage, from cauliflower to kale.
By the late 20th century, genetics promised to enhance this type of breeding by letting researchers select for specific genes affecting a trait. This approach, however, proved to be inefficient and only captured a small amount of the genetic variation associated with a trait.
“We discovered, almost by accident, that it should be possible to identify high genetic value by using thousands of molecular genetic markers covering the entire genome”, Meuwissen explains.
The technique, called genomic selection, came to dominate the field. The principles were published in Genetics in 2001 by Goddard and Meuwissen, along with Prof. Ben Hayes of La Trobe University in Australia. At the time, however, genomic technology was inadequate because there was no way to assay animals for thousands of markers at reasonable cost. With the development of “SNP chips”, it soon caught up. (Single nucleotide polymorphisms, frequently called SNPs, is the measurement of genetic variations between members of a species).
“Around 2007 it became possible to generate enough DNA markers, which allowed us to successfully apply our method”.
Addresses feed efficiency
Genomic selection first became widely adopted in the dairy cattle industry where it was found to save considerable time and money compared to traditional breeding techniques. Genomic selection has now been applied to other animal species, such as pigs and poultry, as well as plants like cotton, rice, and wheat. The concepts behind genomic selection have also proved useful in the field of human genetics and the search for predictors of disease. Meuwissen believes the approach will continue to have widespread, positive effects.
“I believe genomic selection will eventually be applied to all livestock species, including horses, dogs and cats. We will be able to reach 100 percent accuracy in our selection. Using genomic selection the animals’ disease resistance will increase, as well as fertility and functionality”.
Meuwissen’s research influences several NMBU research projects, including FeedMileage and activities at the Centre for Research-based Innovation Foods of Norway. Feed efficiency is one important aspect of these projects.
“Improving feed efficiency is challenging. It is not possible to have records on for instance grazing animals. To address this trait by genomic selection, however, should work”, Meuwissen says.
32 scientists have previously received the John J. Carty award. Eight award winners have subsequently gone on to receive the Nobel prize, including James Watson for his discovery of the structure of DNA.
“This award is important for NMBU and my Department of Animal and Aquacultural Sciences. We are ranked by our excellence in science. The award demonstrates that we are good at what we do in this field. Personally, I feel very honoured”.
The John J. Carty award was established in 1932. This is the first time in 20 years that the prize has been awarded to researchers working in the agricultural sciences, which is an important recognition for this field of science which is key to much of the research performed at NMBU.