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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- GENES AND STUFF

By: Wes Ishmael

If Roger Wyse is even close to the same area code of his predictions concerning the near future of global population and food demand, ranchers and farmers are going to have to start climbing a steep learning curve toward understanding genomics.

Tossing a broad loop, Wyse told participants at this years International Livestock Congress (ILC)—an extraordinary mix of private industry, commercial cattle producers, academic types and government researchers—that, “We must triple the food supply using half as much land and with limited water if the global population again doubles as expected by 2030.”

Wyse is managing director of Burrill and Company, a private merchant bank focused on the life sciences. This organization provides of tens of million of dollars of venture capital to companies seeking to develop commercial biotechnological products. Previously, Wyse was founding CEO and president of AniGenics, a fully integrated animal genomics company.

So, how does a U.S. agricultural industry, already the global standard for efficiency, produce even more and at a price that enables producers to not only stay in business but leads them to make the economic choice of staying in?

Specifically, Wyse says that a suite of technologies must be developed to build consumers safe and nutritious food, meet growing packer and processor demands for increased uniformity and increase rural profitability while decreasing the environmental impact of production.

“Advances in genomics and biotechnology will be part of that answer,” says Wyse. “But the real question is when and how will it occur in the livestock industry and how can we position ourselves to take advantage of it?”

The carrots dangled by genomics are certainly many and succulent: molecular medicines that enable early disease detection and improved diagnosis and treatment; new energy sources, edible vaccines, disease-resistant livestock, and on and on.

The Slowness of Rapid Revolution

Indeed. Wyse pointed out that researchers rocked the science world in February when they announced they have completed sequencing the human genome, something he describes as a seminal event in human history.

“This event will fundamentally change human health care in the future and how we produce plants and animals,” says Wyse. “The opportunities are limited only by the economics of the marketplace and the structure of the industry.”

Describing the human genome sequencing in layman's terms, Wyse explains, “We now know all of the phone numbers in the human phone book, now all we have to do is find out who (which gene) each of those numbers belong to, what they do for a living and how they interact as a society.” For the record, about 30,000 genes were mapped, far fewer than previously expected.

For the uninitiated or for the previously initiated—this stuff gets deeper than a well rope in the Sahara faster than it takes Bill Clinton to stub his toes—here's a brief, non-technical thumbnail of what we're talking about, gleaned from the website of the Human Genome project (a project begun in 1990 and coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health) functional genomics is simply the science of understanding the function of genes and other parts of the genome. The genome is basically the user's manual that defines what and how each living organism will be, whether you're talking a three-legged toad chaser or man himself. This genome resides in the nucleus of the trillions of cells comprising the organism and consists of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Further, each DNA molecule is comprised of genes, the basic physical and functional unit of heredity, and a gene is a specific sequence of nucleotide bases whose sequences carry the information required for constructing proteins, which in turn provide the structural components of cells and tissues, as well as enzymes for essential biochemical reactions.

So, this feat of sequencing the human genome is fairly well miraculous, but it is only the first step in what promises to be a lengthy journey if the promise of utilizing genomics to usher in a golden age of unheralded human health and livestock profitability is to be fulfilled.

In his presentation, A Livestock Genomics Initiative, Wyse explains, “With the sequencing of the human genome now largely complete, the stage is now set for the even more formidable but also more exciting and rewarding task of locating and determining the function of all genes important for improving human health and wellness. The number of genes is large, their products varied, and the interaction between metabolic pathways is so complex that the capabilities of biologists to decipher their function will be but to the test.”

To be sure, Wyse explains the technologies and information systems developed along the way to sequencing the human genome should accelerate ensuing steps towards being able to use the information. But, the fact remains folks have been talking about the power of genomics for the better part of what seems like forever, and we're still just talking. Especially in the livestock industry.

Wyse explains, “Understanding the molecular reasons for the major phenotypic differences among closely related mammals is a high priority. The challenge is to identify those genes and the accompanying genetic mechanisms that are responsible for the economically important traits of livestock.

“Using the human and mouse genomes that have been sequenced (that's possible because mammals share an eerily large percentage of genes in common) and the tools of comparative genomics, U.S. animal geneticists will be able to identify genes and proteins that have identical function in different mammals and those that diverge significantly. Only then will the industry be able to perform selective breeding or make genetic modifications through transgenesis or develop novel “farmaceuticals” for the animal agriculture sector.”

So, if and when do genomics make a difference?

Bottom line, for all of the research and dollars spent thus far in human and livestock genomics research, folks don't yet have much they can hold in their hands and use to their benefit.

Jay Hetzel, managing director of Genetic Solutions Pty., Ltd, which recently merged with U.S.-based Genomics FX, asked participants at the ILC, “What has genomics delivered to the beef industry so far? Relatively little for all of the research that has been done. Should we be disappointed? No. It started in livestock about 15 years ago (sequencing the genome) and we started from scratch. This type of research was expected to take 15-20 years for the development of commercial applications It's pay time now.”

Sure, there are DNA tests which can be used for livestock parentage, genetic animal disorders, and for a few years, cattle producers have been able to use DNA as a diagnostic test to see whether or not an animal was homozygous black. But the stuff producers dream of, the guarantee of tenderness, profitable feed efficiency or super cow traits and the like haven't arrived yet.

In fact, Hetzel's company became the first to commercialize a DNA test for a trait of global economic importance in the beef industry when his organization unleashed a test for marbling last year. Basically, that test tells a producer whether or not a particular animal in fact has one or two copies of a gene that contributes to consumer-satisfying amounts of marbling.

But the prognosis for the arrival of other tests is nebulous at best. Hetzel pegs development of additional DNA diagnostic tests for marbling on the short-term horizon; tests for tenderness, yield grade and growth traits at a medium timeframe and such traits as disease resistance, feed efficiency and reproductive traits at medium to long-term. But, when asked to define short, medium or long in terms of years, he said no one really knows.

Even as researchers continue to uncover the genomic specifics and tools they need to make such things as DNA diagnostics and marker-assisted selection possible, Hetzel recognizes, “Realizing the potential of genomic technologies will depend on packaging and delivering genomic information in user-friendly formats.” So, aside from developing commercial products and applications that make economic sense to a producer, these things are going to have to come to the producer in a package that he can use easily without boning up on the ins and outs of molecular biology.

Moreover, in the wake of the public relations debacle that spun out of control on such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as BT corn and Round-up Ready soybeans, it could be the ultimate use of genomic technology, if and when it is developed, will have as much to do with consumer education as producer acceptance.

“I think it's pretty well accepted that we ignore the consumer's attitude at our own peril,” says Hetzel.

Indeed, even though GMO crops ought to make a world of sense to consumers—being able to grow the same crop with less chemical applied to the environment—those industries failed to convince the consumer there was really any direct benefit to them in using the new technology. What ensued has been a chorus of “Frankenfood” accusations, export restrictions, labeling wonderments and everything else.

In the case of a DNA diagnostic test, for example, nothing has been added to or modified. It's just a test. Yet, a dearth of education, in conjunction with the normal human brain, mean that it can be an awfully short walk and quick inferential leap from DNA tests to cloning (which has nothing to do with genomics, specifically), to some sci-fi scenario where the children of the future are genetically engineered to resist the common cold but have the unfortunate habit of glowing in the dark.

Just ask any of the animal geneticists attending a national meeting in Minneapolis last summer. These are your standard, every day geneticists, folks that have been working in the industry for years, not some public-imagined genome manipulators. Yet, just the term geneticist led the activists and terrorists of the world to cause such a stink and unleash such a string of threats that going to what should have been an ordinary industry meeting turned into an exercise in anti-terrorist security.

The need for the increased food supply that genomic technology could offer the word's consumers, and the potential this same technology could provide producers in meeting that need on a profitable basis makes it tough not to believe it will be developed sooner or later. However, whether consumer let producers use the technology depends on how well producers educate themselves first, then their customers, starting now.

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