Ram Breeding and Gene Modification

by Edward Dinger

Ever since Bakewell started recording sheep, he and those who followed his methods were applying biotechnology in its simplest from. Cross breeding is also a form of biotech whether it applies to grasses, roses, dogs or sheep. No one ever protested to those developments, as far as I know.

DNA contains all the information required to produce the building blocks of life. The information in DNA can be broken into logical subunits called genes. Each gene programs for one protein variety. Different proteins, together with environmental factors, ultimately control the nature of every characteristic in a living organism, from eye colour and body shape to fertility and foetal development.

Since all life on Earth uses DNA as its information to produce proteins, it is possible to transfer genetic information between any species, whether it be animal, plant or bacterium. In conventional breeding techniques, when we cross any two plants or animals, we are faced with two major limitations. First, we cannot select which genes from the parents will be inherited in the offspring; the offspring contains a completely random assortment of genes from its parents. Second, we are restricted to the gene pool provided within that species; we can only cross between plants or animals of the same species.

Genetic engineering overcomes these limitations by allowing us to choose which genes, regardless of its origin, to introduce into a plant or animal. The technology to allow us to pick and choose the genes we want in an organism is not yet available. However, with the mapping of the genomes (a genome is the complete complement of genes in an organism) of many plants, animals and bacteria, we are rapidly getting an understanding of which genes controls which characteristics. With this knowledge alone, we will be able to predict the characteristics of a plant or animal when it is still an embryo. So instead of breeding thousands of animals and hoping for one with all the desirable characteristics, we will be able to simply screen the embryos, then grow only the ones which have the combination of genes we want.

The technology that gave mankind this power needs to, of course, be very well managed and harnessed. But it will give us the opportunity to grow plants and animals with the characteristics of our choosing.

In a pest free environment and with minimal input we will get the maximum out of our plants and animals. It will give food production of all kinds an enormous boost and will be lot cheaper to produce than it is now.

A similar scenario will happen in the forage plant industry. Grasses, clovers and others will be developed that will be the optimum for particular types of animals and weather conditions, giving maximum amounts of proteins, minerals and fiber, and at the same time delivering protection for parasites and diseases.

Because everything is happening in a laboratory, it is looked upon with extreme suspicion by the gneral public and tarred with the same brush as genetic engineering (putting genes from one species into an unrelated species, e.g. gene transplantation); the general population will view this as the same thing.

Biotechnology will be the next revolution, as were the industrial and electronic revolutions in the past, and could have a bigger impact than any of those.
Biotechnology is potentially a very competitive threat, but it could also be an enormous advantage and a very powerful tool; one that we can in no way afford to ignore.

With 45 million ovine and 10 million bovine species in New Zealand there are bound to be some very profitable genes locked up in those animals.

With the genome of the sheep now almost mapped it will eventually possible to design a sheep the way you would want it. Think of it, given a reasonable budget, you could get a highly fertile, fast growing muscular sheep with parasite and foot rot resistance out of the laboratory. In our case we would like it to be Facial Eczema tolerant as well, but for that we will have to wait a bit longer, the gene or genes that prevent FE have not been located yet, although in time it no doubt will.

Although this powerful tool is available we are not working at it. There is no move in New Zealand to create this type of sheep. You have to ask why not?

With all these possibilities Breed Societies will become totally obsolete for the supply of breeding stock to the sheep industry. Die hards will no doubt continue, and will become members of the rare breed societies. Since we will need the original sources of supply that is not a bad thing.

But breeding as we now know it, by careful selection or crossbreeding, will not be necessary anymore. Pertaining to the sheep industry, nobody but NZ sheep farmers are interested in all this. You can't blame the overseas pharmaceutical companies that make good money in selling us drench or dip, or competing countries like South Africa or Australia, not investing in R & D here. Even the side effects in the human health area that could and will come out the findings, are likely to be done overseas.

With successive governments here having other priorities than stimulating the agricultural sector, farmers will have to finance their own research.
For that, we not only need money which is actually there (locked up in the Wool and Meat Boards reserve funds), but also researchers. It's the people that have to do the research that are, or will become, the problem. Notwithstanding the denial of the Government, the brain drain is a reality, if my own family is anything to go by.
At the moment researches are leaving this country in droves, and while some could come back, most of them will not. The facilities and opportunities are simply not here in NZ.

Since artificial insemination and other non-natural ways of multiplying sheep is difficult and cumbersome, ram breeders will always be necessary to multiply those "ideal" sheep coming out of the test facilities. Ram breeders could, and will, have to produce this ideal sheep for its environment, and must have the attributes that our customers want.

The only thing holding us back is our own attitude, the frame of the public mind and the government.

Let's change it.

Acknowledgment: My son, Marcel, who is currently doing a PhD in molecular biology at The University of Waikato.

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