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Pig genome could save our bacon

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15 November 2012

  • Pig genome could help combat animal and human disease

An international consortium of scientists, including experts from three BBSRC-funded institutes, has published a high-quality analysis of the pig genome. The research, published in the journal Nature, will help to unlock new ways of improving the health of animals and humans in the future.

The genetic makeup of domestic pigs was compared to those of ten wild boars - from which domestic pigs are descended. Researchers found important genetic differences that developed through domestication and will help to inform future breeding programmes.

Professor Alan Archibald, of The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Pork is the most popular of all meats to eat and with a growing global population we need to improve the sustainability of food production. The improved knowledge of pigs' genetic make-up should help us breed healthier and more productive animals."

The scientists identified around 21,000 genes in the pig genome. Comparing these genes to their counterparts in humans, mice, dogs, horses and cows revealed that the immune response genes associated with fighting infection are evolving rapidly in pigs. Further understanding of the fundamental biology of these genes and how and why they have evolved more rapidly, could help direct future breeding to improve pig health and the ability to fight disease.

The comparison of the pig and human genes revealed several examples where the pig gene resembled the form of a human gene associated with specific diseases, such as diabetes and Alzheimer's. These discoveries extend the potential of pigs to shed light on human diseases.

Analysis from this study also gives an insight into the genes that enable high quality pork production, which can help improve sustainability and lower costs. It also provides an explanation for the renowned ability for pigs to seek out truffles, picking out their signature scent amongst the complex scents of a woodland floor and locating them underground. With 1,301 unique olfactory receptor genes, the pig has more genes than have been identified in human, dog or mouse, but similar numbers to those in the rat. This highlights the importance of a heightened sense of smell in scavenging animals.

Dr Mario Caccamo, Head of Bioinformatics at TGAC, who joined the project whilst at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, led the assembly of the pig genome sequence and is one of the primary authors on the Nature paper.

Dr Caccamo said: "The publication of the swine genome reference today is the culmination of a great team effort involving a large consortium of scientists from across the world. Our contribution at TGAC was focused on the generation of the final sequence assembly in collaboration with colleagues at the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI)."

Professor Jane Rogers, Director of TGAC, said: "From the outset, this genome project was developed with the technical challenges in mind of providing a resource that would enable researchers to use the genome to make comparisons between the genes in pigs and humans that are involved in health, for example, genes involved in infectious disease defence mechanisms. Whilst the genome is not complete, it provides an excellent foundation for such work and I hope researchers around the world will use and continue to improve it over time".

Dr Larkin, a Lecturer in Animal Genomics at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, led the pig chromosome evolution analysis of the pig genome. The group performed a detailed analysis of genome rearrangements in pig chromosomes and detected over 100 evolutionary rearrangements that distinguish pigs from other mammals and revealed their contribution to pig biology.

The International Swine Genome Sequencing Consortium is comprised of researchers from more than 40 institutes in 12 countries and was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, the European Commission, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Wellcome Trust and pig industry groups in Europe and the United States.


Notes  to editors

External contact

Tara Womersley, Press and PR office, The University of Edinburgh

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