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Ag Genomics Improving Pork, One SNP at a Time


Most researchers would agree that searching for medically relevant SNPs in humans will provide insight into which genes and corresponding proteins could serve as potential drug targets. But is it really necessary to use genotyping in the search for better-tasting pork? Graham Plastow, chief technology officer of Sygen, formerly known as the Pig Improvement Company, certainly thinks so.

For more than 20 years Plastow has put his quantitative genetics background to work in the food industry, first with Dalgety, a British food conglomerate, and later with PIC when that company was spun out of Dalgety in 1998. Over the years the technology for identifying genes associated with various meat-quality criteria, such as animal growth rate and amount of back fat and lean meat, has evolved from Southern blots to single-base primer extension, and the company’s success in finding useful genetic markers has led to continued investment in new genomics technology.

Today, PIC relies heavily on Orchid’s single-base primer extension technology to perform most of the grunt-work for its pig genotyping experiments, but is also delving into DNA microarray and proteomics studies with academic collaborators at the University of Cambridge and Iowa State University, among others. At the company’s laboratories in Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, UK, researchers try to build maps of qualitative trait loci, as well as engage in comparative genomics using human, rat, and even rabbit sequence information. In one early study, the company and its collaborators used gene mapping and comparative genomics to identify a SNP linked to malignant hypothermia, a condition in pigs that leads not only to unhealthy animals, but also — not surprisingly — to poorer-quality pork.

Plastow, who has overseen the application of these and other genomics technologies to produce more commercially attractive pigs, hopes to extend its usefulness to shrimp as well. Berkeley-based PIC, which changed its name to Sygen in 2000, is working with researchers at the Oceanic Institute in Oahu, Hawaii, to develop genotyping techniques for tracing the origin of farm-grown shrimp, and for finding markers for growth and disease resistance. “As consumers become more interested in how their food is produced, traceability is becoming more important,” Plastow says.

But unlike the quest to cure human disease, a task many are willing to pursue at extraordinary cost, using genomics to produce more tasty pork or shrimp is inextricably tied to rigid price points. Consequently, Plastow wishes the efficiency of genotyping technology would advance a little faster. “In the medical area, the value of the information is whatever people are thinking about the value of healthcare,” he says. “In pig production, you’re talking about the value of a meat animal, so cost per data point is a big driver in terms of what we can do.”

— John S. MacNeil


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