Although there’s not an imminent danger, some scientists say a widespread disease or bioterrorism attack could wipe out significant portions of the U.S. farm animal population.
The country’s genetic resources support a host of animal industries, and without some action to preserve them, those resources are at risk, according to Dr. Harvey Blackburn, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Germplasm Program.
Speaking to a group of animal scientists at the LSU AgCenter Tuesday (Nov. 4), Blackburn said his program was created by Congress because of concern that some animal industries’ dependence on one or two breeds of a species could pose long-term problems if other genetic material isn’t available. He cited as examples the leghorn chicken and Holstein dairy breed, which currently dominate the poultry and milk industries.
The National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) is patterned after the well-established USDA National Plant Germplasm System, which is a repository of seeds to protect the genetic diversity of agricultural plants from around the world.
Collecting and storing seeds from plants, however, is relatively easy compared to collecting and storing animal germplasm – the sperm or eggs that contain an animal’s genetic material.
"Our goal is to build viable germplasm collections to re-establish whole livestock breeds if the need arises," Blackburn said.
The NAGP is directed by six committees made up of representatives from the federal government, industry and universities. The committees represent six economically important animal groups – beef, dairy, sheep and goats, poultry, swine and aquatic species.
Four nationally known scientists from the LSU AgCenter are serving as representatives on three of the committees – the highest number of committee members of any institution in the country.
"Our mandate is in food-producing species," Blackburn said. "The species committees help drive this process."
Blackburn said that while commercial breeding programs generally select animals for specific production traits, the NAGP wants to collect genetic samples from the entire spectrum of a species to have broad diversity in genetic material.
Once the material is collected, it has to be preserved for future use, so one of the aims of the program is to develop cryopreservation methods to be able to have the genetic material available to replace genetic combinations that may have been lost through selective breeding programs.
Dr. Robert Godke, who heads the LSU AgCenter’s Embryo Biotechnology Laboratory, said many LSU AgCenter scientists have been conducting the type of research the NAGP is looking for.
Godke and other LSU AgCenter scientists have been working with cryopreservation – in this case, the procedures for freezing sperm, eggs or embryos at very low temperatures so the materials remain genetically stable and metabolically inert during cold storage.
"Most of our research is conducted through grant funding," Godke said. "Grants help us mold the directions we’re going in our animal research.
"The NAGP has been good for our research efforts," he added. "We know what they need, and in the long run, this is important for our next generation research projects."
By its faculty serving on the committees, the LSU AgCenter is helping to shape the transition from research to application, said Dr. Terry Tiersch, a professor at the LSU AgCenter’s Aquaculture Research Station and chairman of the NAGP’s aquatic species committee.