AMES, IOWA — Examining a small sample of hair or blood helps to determine if a calf has any genetic diseases that will lower the market price for cattle. At present, a team of Iowa State University clinicians, diagnosticians and genetic researchers at the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine are taking such research a step further – they’re looking to test calves before they are born -- even before their mother is pregnant, according to an I.S.U. news release.

A method to determine if a bovine is genetically sound when it is still an embryo prior to being implanted in its mother is being researched by Dr. Jim West and Dr. Paul Plummer. If successful, this process would allow producers to select which embryos are valuable before spending the time, effort and expense of producing a calf only to find out that it has genetic defects that render it of little value.

Until now the problem has always been biopsy samples of embryos are so small -- only a few cells - that it has been impossible to accurately read the genetic information. "There were limitations to the process," said Mr. West, director of Food Supply Veterinary Medicine. "You can't take very many cells when you do the biopsy. You have to leave enough cells to get a pregnancy."

Mr. West and Mr. Plummer may now be able to get accurate genetic information from samples as small as two to three cells and still keep the embryo viable, even if it is frozen for long-term storage, thanks to new technology.

"Our research is looking at the ability to biopsy the embryo, freeze it and then do a variety of tests on the sample after only seven days from when it was conceived," Mr. West said.

A Grow Iowa Values Fund Grant is funding the study. The goal of the grant program is to support development of technologies with commercial potential and to support the growth of companies using those technologies, the news release states. The researchers are working with Ames Center for Genetic Technologies Inc. as their corporate partner.

Testing for traits can be very simple or more complex. More complex testing can screen embryos for genes that will indicate whether calves will carry traits for beef tenderness, feed efficiency, nutrition and more than a dozen others.

"Testing is going to happen," Mr. West explains. "Right now the testing happens on animals that are already born. This test will allow us to go back a generation and only select those that have the desirable traits."

Producers will be offered many advantages by the new process, according to Mr. Plummer, a clinician in Food Supply Veterinary Medicine.

"First, the new test allows very small samples," he said. "Also, it is affordable for the producer. It is also modular, so we can test for different traits. Finally, it is adaptable. When new diseases are identified we can change it."

Mr. West and Mr. Plummer envision many possibilities in this new technology. Overseas markets have specific preferences for how their beef and dairy products taste. This new technology will allow producers to market embryos with specific traits to the markets they best fit, Mr. Plummer said.

Embryos already in storage can be thawed and tested for diseases that may have not previously been detectable. These types of tests may allow many diseased cattle to be avoided.

Other members of the research team include Dr. Patrick Halbur, chair of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine; Dr. Rodger Main, director of operations at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; and Marianna Jahnke, Embryo Transfer Unit.