Farming with Epigenetics

Every once in a while, I stumble upon an enthusiastic mention of epigenetics on some agricultural site. This week, it was this one at the Cattle Site, which seems to be reposting this report (pdf) from the European Union’s Sustainable Animal Breeding (SABRE) project.

Since epigenetics promises to offer people new ways to control gene expression — and therefore certain diseases, traits, developmental patterns, and so on — I’d assumed that it’d take root right away in agriculture (ta-dum dum). After all, engineered plants and animals became commonplace during the ’90s, when the technology was still pretty young. Heck, DNA sequencing was still a manual affair. But so far, it seems like agriculture hasn’t really embraced it yet. For this post, I thought I’d take a look around and figure out the state of affairs.

It looks like there’s really only one book in the area — that’s Livestock Epigenetics by Hasan Khatib, published only a couple of months ago. That doesn’t count collected volumes of scientific journals and such, of course

And from what I can tell, not many universities are building departmental strength in agricultural epigenetics, although since January, the University of California Davis has been looking for an assistant professor in “animal epigenetics and stress physiology,” which is an encouraging sign. Also, the Agricultural Biotechnology Center in Hungary has what seems to be a new “Epigenetics Group.” But most university research in the field seems to be more basic-science, like this Cornell University investigator’s work with Arabidopsis, or focused projects, like this USDA-funded $4.7 million poultry stress initiative at North Carolina State University.

Encouragingly, it looks like a fair share of livestock epigenetics is devoted to healthier, less stressed animals. In addition to the UC Davis position and the NC State research, this Frontiers in Genetics overview from Oscar González-Recio of Spain’s Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria offers this view of how this newish science might fit in at the farm:

Farms could use epigenetic information to reduce disease incidence and the use of antibiotics in animal production. Personalized medicine using methylation on DNA is currently carried out on cancer research in humans (Peedicayil, 2008; Gomez and Ingelman-Sundberg, 2009), and seems to be a promising strategy for veterinary medicine as well. For instances, drugs may be created to modify the methylation pattern of a genomic region that is found to be associated to a given disease. These perspectives make epigenetics an interesting area of research at this time, as its potential application could lead to perform breeding and management of livestock in a more efficient and sustainable manner.

(Here’s a fuller discussion of González-Recio’s overview from Genome Alberta’s Livestock Blog.)

Last, it looks like livestock diets are one of the first places we might start to see epigenetics on the farm. The EU SABRE project’s report (pdf) includes a few details about the multi-generational effects of high-methyl diets on pigs and cattle, while a recent symposium sponsored by the animal feed company Alltech featured a segment by NC State’s Chris Ashwell exploring the epigenetics of diet in poultry.

Surprisingly, that’s about it — if you happen across any more info on the topic, drop us a hint in the comments.

[Picture of terrace farming in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, India, by Flickr user Koshyk used here under a Creative Commons license.]

González-Recio, O. (2012). Epigenetics: A New Challenge in the Post-Genomic Era of Livestock Frontiers in Genetics, 2 DOI: 10.3389/fgene.2011.00106

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6 Responses to Farming with Epigenetics

  1. Marlene Paibomesai says:

    There is some current epigenetics work going on at the University of Guelph in the Pathobiology department at the Ontario Veterinary College. Our lab is focusing on epigenetic processes controlling the adaptive immune response in cattle and how this may influence cell lineage commitment and overall disease resistance during the peripartum period. We have recently had a paper accepted for publication and await its print date. This is the focus of my PhD.

  2. Sebastian Schuol says:

    Hey Chris,

    nice topic – I think this german working group could be of interest for you:
    best regards,


    • Chris Womack says:

      Excellent. Thanks very much Sebastian — looks like it’s been going on since 2001, which is longer than I would’ve guessed!

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