Researchers from the Università Cattolica, Piacenza, are looking for genes to make cattle and sheep breeds resistant to climate change, heat waves and drought: it threatens the survival of many local breeds, with huge economic losses to the production chain, while the advent of new diseases can seriously affect livestock.
At the Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Sciences led by Prof. Marco Trevisan, the Department of Animal, Nutrition and Nutritional Sciences-DiANA, led by Professor Francesco Masoero, studies the genetics of adaptation. The geneticists, coordinated by Prof. Paolo Ajmone Marsan and involving Prof. Riccardo Negrini, Prof. Licia Colli and a large group of young doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, recently published a review in the journal animals on adapting livestock to climate change.
Production loss due to climate change
“Production loss due to heat depends on environmental conditions, as assessed by the temperature/humidity index (THI),” explains Professor Ajmone Marsan. Several studies revealed worrying estimates of the order of millions of euros in direct costs (loss of production) and indirect costs (costs of veterinary interventions, feed, etc.).
Prof. dr. Trevisan points out that a paper, published this year in The Lancet Planetary Healthestimates the loss of global production from heat stress at about $40 billion a year by the end of the century (ranging from a low of $34 to a high of $45), equivalent to about 10 percent of the value of meat and milk in 2005 .
“Heat stress is harmful to all animal species,” explains Professor Negrini, “especially for ruminants and high-yielding dairy cattle, as well as for our breeds. Unfortunately, climate forecasts indicate that the summer weather in our country will become increasingly drier and warmer. That will increase the stress in animals. despite shade, ventilation, sprinkling of water and any conditioning.”
Genomics to save livestock
Genomics can help save livestock from climate change, explains Professor Ajmone Marsan. For several years now, national breeding programs have changed the selection goals of livestock species, favoring animals that are more robust and functional, not just highly productive. Traditional selection gives excellent results, but requires a minimum of 5 years. Genomics has nearly tripled the selection rate. With genomics it is possible to identify and use the best variants of genes involved in everything important for the welfare of the livestock.
Some genetic variants (mutations) have already been identified through genomics that help animals adapt better to hostile climates. For example, in some local Caribbean cattle breeds (Senepol, Limoneiro and Carora), a “smooth” mutation has been discovered that results in hair shortening and a series of physiological changes that make the animals extremely resistant to heat stress. The mutation was introduced to the Friesian breed in Florida and has also been shown to be effective in this breed, which is very important for milk production.
One goal could be to introduce the gene into Italian herds and use it in selection programs.
The ongoing research projects in Italy and Europe
“Many ongoing research projects are looking for other beneficial genetic variants related to environmental adaptation in other breeds and other species. We are actively involved in some of these projects,” says Prof. Colli.
“We are studying the genetic basis of adaptation as part of national and international projects,” he explains. “In particular, we coordinate the SCALA-MEDI project that studies the genetics of adaptation in North African sheep and poultry. Five countries, Italy, France, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, 18 partners and more than 100 researchers are involved in the project. its main aim is to study and improve the extreme climate adaptability of local North African races, especially very hot and arid climates such as the Sahara. Understanding the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms of climate adaptation is important for planning genetic and genomic improvement programs that increase the production efficiency of local varieties without compromising their adaptive properties.”
“Our aim is to also demonstrate the economic value of the studied breeds,” says Professor Negrini, “to contribute to their sustainable conservation. Adaptive genes are preserved in local breeds, but many of them are on the brink from extinction, replaced by improved breeds that are economically advantageous but have poor adaptability There must be a balance between efficient production with industrial breeds, which can sustainably feed the world, and the preservation of livestock biodiversity as a reservoir of useful genes.”
“Genomics can increase the efficiency of local breeds, improve their durability, while studying their DNA to identify genes for adaptation that are useful for industrial breeds,” emphasizes Professor Ajmone Marsan.
“A second European project that has just ended is IMAGE (www.imageh2020.eu) coordinated by the French INRA. The primary aim of the project was to characterize and exploit biobanks of DNA and animal sperm and ova from livestock,” said Professor Ajmone Marsan. “Our group identified genes associated with climate adaptation in European sheep. We identified several genes and variants related to environmental variables (such as temperature, humidity, etc.) that are active in the immune system and metabolism, especially fat metabolism.”
A graduation project is “A multi-species genomic approach to assessment pre- and post-Columbian population dynamics in South America”, which studies in parallel the genomes of humans, beans and cattle on the South American continent.
“While the main goal is the reconstruction of human migratory routes during the Paleolithic colonization of the continent, continental livestock sampling will once again allow us to study the genes of livestock adaptation along a very diverse climatic gradient, from Patagonia to the tropics; from sea level.” to the heights of the Peruvian mountains,” says Prof. Erminio Trevisi.
“Genomics is a powerful tool and will facilitate the selection of animals that are more resilient to climate change, but it is only one of the factors that can ensure animal welfare in extreme climates; it is also critical to improve agricultural structure, breeding management and precision feeding The good news is that animals in production are being monitored increasingly closely by cameras, sensors and intelligent data analytics systems, which alert farmers as soon as animals show the first signs of stress, allowing immediate mitigation measures to be taken.”
Rising temperatures will hit meat and milk production in East Africa
Provided by Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
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