The genomic puzzle of sheep production

Newsarticles & media

25 Apr 2012

Ovita's research programme is about piecing together the pieces of the genomic puzzle that affect sheep production.

Once such piece is pneumonia, a health trait that affects lamb growth and productivity across the entire country. Lambs with pneumonia don't achieve goal weights, can also contract pleurisy, and in some cases don't survive.

Farmers already know that environment and management influences outbreaks of pneumonia in young stock. But because it is caused by a raft of different organisms, pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose accurately in the live animal, and farmers often don't know if pneumonia or other causes triggered death or failure to thrive. Vaccines providing a high level of protection have also proved difficult to develop.

What's also not known is the heritability of pneumonia in sheep, so scientists at AgResearch are currently looking at the role genetics play.

Lead by Shannon Clarke, the team are working to identify lambs with pneumonia infection being processed as part of other Ovita funded trials.

The scientists have come up with a process that ranks lesions on sheep lungs at chain speed, which is successfully pinpointing how much of a problem the disease is in Otago and Southland. In the first three years of the study, they've identified that 30 percent of the 4000 sheep assessed have pneumonic lesions.

It is heritable, but the question scientists will have to answer is what genes are involved, and whether that effect is strong enough to be able to come up with genetic predictors that can rank rams for pneumonia susceptibility.

And if genetic markers can be found, both genetic and environmental management play a part in pneumonia control in future.

This technology is a result of New Zealand farmer investment in Beef + Lamb New Zealand and Ovita.

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