Gene collection vital to animal researchers

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON – Ten years ago when the National Animal Germplasm Program (N.A.G.P.) first opened for business, it started out with genetic material from 40 lines of chicken. Today, the Agricultural Research Service (A.R.S.)-operated center in Fort Collins, Colo., has grown into one of the largest repositories of its kind in the world, housing more than half-million genetic samples from 12,000 animals, writes Chris Guy of the A.R.S.

Harvey Blackburn, animal geneticist and N.A.G.P. coordinator, said this collection of germplasm assures genetic diversity of agriculturally significant animals, such as dairy and beef cattle, chicken, sheep and swine, in addition to bison, elk and fish. Among the animal germplasm Mr. Blackburn has added to the A.R.S. collections is that from Shorthorn cattle.

For Mr. Blackburn and other N.A.G.P. specialists, providing vital genetic material for scientific research has become a primary function. They distribute animal samples to university researchers, private laboratories and others who work to improve the genetic makeup of animals.

Genetic material has been used to restore breeds of cattle and other animals that had died out. Researchers insist that maintaining diversity by preserving germplasm—even if the material comes from breeds that aren't currently being studied—acts as an insurance policy against future diseases or other threats.

In Michigan, researchers worked with D.N.A.-based technology to develop 40 distinct lines of chickens at the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory (A.D.O.L.) in East Lansing. Those studies have revealed tools and techniques to find sources of genetic resistance to diseases such as virus-induced tumors.

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