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High quality sheep genomes capitalise on existing knowledge

Considerable data and resources are available on sheep genetics in Aotearoa. The key question is how to refine new genomic technologies and incorporate them into the existing frameworks to create seamless processes for the sheep industry.

But optimising new genomic technologies to predict economic, environmental or welfare related genetic traits in sheep breeding is no trivial task – genetic tests need to be cost effective and results understandable and meaningful for breeders.

A collaborative approach to seek answers

Working with industry leaders, Genomics Aotearoa has developed new statistical approaches and new data sources that can be interpreted meaningfully.

Lambs. Image by Unsplash/Tim Marshall

Lambs. Image by Unsplash/Tim Marshall

This project brought together researchers from the horticulture, sheep, beef, and dairy industries via two Crown Research Institutes, two universities, and industry partners Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), and AbacusBio Limited, combining crucial skills and capabilities to complement other Genomics Aotearoa projects. Two postdoctoral researchers, managed across institutions, were employed to build capability.

New tools and approaches to predict breeding values

The project has produced tools for breeding value prediction, adapting techniques such as imputation (a process that uses statistical inference) to predict the worth of elite individual animals earlier and more accurately.

Novel approaches augment the wealth of genotypic information already available on animals with Whole Genome Sequence data. This combination adds considerable detail to understanding the role of genetic variations in the animal's DNA, and therefore its potential.

The approaches developed are being made accessible across all primary industries, so that they can cost-effectively adopt genomic selection to suit their own circumstances. The techniques are also relevant to conservation, where management of threatened species requires similar genomic support.

The project is the culmination of a strong working relationship between Genomics Aotearoa partners, science, industry, and farmers in Aotearoa. Research organisations will now be investigating how to implement findings to improve farming of New Zealand cattle and sheep.

Moving toward the future while making the most of the past

Incorporating the rapid growth in next generation genomic sequencing technologies into existing knowledge and systems provides the opportunity to better identify and use information from genetic variants in livestock improvement.

The new generation tools will further drive genetic improvements across meat production traits, while maintaining sheep health and disease resistance. Genomic breeding values will increase the rate of genetic gain, more accurately predicting the worth of an individual animal, helping breeders get the most from their investment.

The result will be futureproofing, ensuring our biological industries benefit from the increased accuracy and predictability, and are competitive internationally.