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veterinary medicine

Noble animals

LinkGen is the first company in Latin America to do a DNA test for horses and cattle

A good racehorse can be worth up to R$ 2 million. Amongst cattle, a great breeding bull can cost so dear that companies specialized in artificial insemination form consortiums to purchase them and to split the gains resulting from the business. However excellent its quality may be, though, a pedigree animal will have no commercial value unless it can show a genealogical record – a pedigree certificate. A considerable growth in the use of a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) test is seen today in developed countries, to prove the origins of valuable specimens. In Brazil, this kind of test is also gaining ground with the pedigree horse and cattle breeders’ associations, spurred on by LinkGen, a company from São Paulo that is supported by FAPESP’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE).

LinkGen became the first laboratory in South America to test genotypes by DNA for animals. According to biomedical doctor Cynthia Bydlowski, a director of the company and the coordinator of the project, the level of accuracy of the new examinations to test genetic lineage reaches at least 99.91%, while in the blood tests – which examine various kinds of protein in the blood (similar to systems like the ABO and others, in human beings) -, when carried out under ideal conditions, is 96.50%. The greater reliability as the origins of the animal that the DNA test provides gains importance in a scenario in which artificial insemination, the growth in the semen trade and the transfer of embryos make the limits of the farm gates tenuous.

The advantages of the DNA technology use over blood types are not limited to obtaining more accurate results. “We use the coat of the animal, more specifically the hair root, as a source of DNA, an easier material to store than blood. After genetic analysis, the root can be kept for up to three years”, explains biochemist Jaime Leyton, another of LinkGen’s directors. LinkGen submits the DNA extracted from the sample to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a procedure that amplifies certain pre-established regions of the DNA. At least 12 of these regions are studied – they are also called markers – and individually analyzed. “The use of 12 markers is the standard for the more developed laboratories and ensures the quality of the results”, explains Cynthia.

At the beginning of its activities, in 1998, LinkGen did not work with automated systems. “In 2000, with the funds from PIPE, we bought a DNA sequencer and automated the system”, says Cynthia. With the equipment, the capacity of the laboratory, which had previously been limited to the analysis of five animals every three days at the most, grew to 48 complete tests every 24 hours. “One enormous benefit of automation is the possibility of carrying out the processing over 24 hours, without any human supervision”, she notes. In 1999, the company attended to an average of six orders a month. “Today, we receive about 60 samples every month”, Leytonreveals.

Focus on horses
The horse-breeding industry is currently the company’s most attractive business niche. “Over 90% of the tests that we carry out in our laboratory are for the identification of horses”, Leyton comments. One of LinkGen’s first customers was the Brazilian Association of Quarter Horse Breeders (ABQM in the Portuguese acronym), which supplied samples when the technology was still being developed. “Our American counterpart, the American Quarter Horse Association, is now requiring DNA exams for registration”, explains Jarbas Leonel Bertolli, the superintendent of the stud book (registry offices for animals existing in each breeders entity) of the ABQM. The horses registration in general is very rigorous – to get one done, the animal’s genealogical tree needs to be known down to at least the fifth generation.

“Among the South American breeders’ associations, ABQM was the pioneer in the use of the DNA technique”, proudly says Bertolli. This is an inexorable tendency, already clearly delineated in the international market”, comments Antônio Carlos Motta, the coordinator of horse breeding at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply. “The gains from precision are considerable”, says Ricardo Soares Cohen, a project manager from the Coordination of Cattle Raising, of the Animal Production Development and Inspection Department, at the same ministry.

Expanding market
The only barrier to a greater adoption of the DNA test is price, which is still a bit steep for the tastes of the Brazilian breeders – they cost around R$ 140, while the blood test goes at around R$ 35. The growth of the foreign market, though, may expand the new procedure. “The number of horses we have is one of the largest in the world, and, in the 90s, we ceased to be exclusively importers and started to export”, says Motta.

In the area of cattle, says Cohen, from the Ministry of Agriculture, the federal government intends to publicize the advantages of the DNA analysis with the breeders’ associations. According to him, the techniques of molecular biology contribute towards assimilating the females in projects of genetic improvement. “Until a short time ago, only the reproducers were regarded as valuable in imprinting qualities on their progeny”, he says.

LinkGen grossed R$ 100,000 in 2001 and is forecasting growth of 10% for this year. It is gaining ground in the international market as well. “The Rural Association of Paraguay, a confederation of breeders of various species of animals, is an important customer of ours”, says Leyton. LinkGen collaborates closely with the School of Veterinary Medicine of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Araçatuba. So it was there that the sequencer bought with the PIPE project was first installed, for eight months. “We reached an agreement whereby they could use the sequencer in research projects while they trained two technicians for LinkGen”, says Leyton. This closed the circle between the academic and business worlds that brought new benefits for the raising horses and cattle in Brazil.

The Project
Application of Molecular Techniques on Livestock: Perfecting the Genealogical Registration of Cattle and Horses (nº 98/14866-8); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Cynthia Rachid Bydlowski – LinkGen; Investment R$ 20,000.00 and US$ 118,565.00