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The bull’s turn

Innovative project will do genetic sequencing and functional analysis simultaneously

The Central Bela Vista Genética Bovina and FAPESP will finance the Bovine Functional Genome, the first Brazilian venture in the area. Developed in the ambit of the Partnership for Technological Innovation Program (PITE), the project is an advance on the others, since it will carry out, simultaneously, genetic sequencing and its functional analysis, with a view to applying it. The project is focused on animals of the Nelore race, the most important in Brazilian cattle breeding, and it has the objective of identifying bovine genes with a potential for use in the development of products and technologies that can help to overcome limitations related to growth, quality of meat, reproductive health and efficiency that are preventing Brazilian livestock from being more competitive.

The Bovine Functional Genome is budgeted at US$ 1 million, split between FAPESP and the private partner. It will be developed by researchers from FAPESP’s Agronomic and Environmental Genomes Program (AEG), responsible for 20 laboratories of the Onsa Network, a virtual genomics institute created in 1997 to carry out the first Brazilian project in the area, on theXylella fastidiosa bacterium.At the stage of genetic sequencing strictly speaking, bovine tissues will be used from the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, from the reproductive, immune and digestive systems, besides adipose muscular tissues, to produce roughly 100,000 expressed sequences (ESTs).

Over this period, which will be concluded in between six and seven months, a library of clones of the genes that will be analyzed by the team of researchers will be built up. The concomitant carrying out of the data mining and gene expression project, which aim to identify and annotate the genes involved in a given function or related to characteristics that have an economic interest, should speed up the development of new technologies, as well as providing a solid basis for forwarding patent requests. The time forecast for the conclusion of the project is 18 months.

“This project is born as an opportunity for researchers from several areas of knowledge”, explains Josê Fernando Perez, FAPESP’s scientific director. The gene libraries will be available to researchers who put forward research projects of a scientific or technological interest. “In the case of technological projects, the proposals will be appreciated in the ambit of the PITE. The others will be analyzed under the regular lines for fostering research”, Perez reveals.

Lack of information
“Little is known about the zebu bovine genome”, says Luiz Lehmann Coutinho, from the Zootechny Department of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq), of the University of São Paulo (USP), thecoordinator of the project. Scant information is available on the Gen Bank, an international bank that makes this data available, at no charge, to researchers from all over the world. In the United States, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) will be starting, probably in September, the sequencing of the bovine genome.

The project is budgeted at US$ 50 million, half financed by the institute and the rest obtained from other sources. The governor of Texas, Texas, Rick Pery, has recognized that the project will bring benefits for human health and for the biotechnology industry, besides enormous gains for the meat and meat byproducts industry. He has now announced that he will be making a contribution of US$ 10 million over the next three years, and will also help to get the US$ 15 million that are needed for the project to start.

“The complete sequencing of the bovine genome is an academic effort that aims at getting important information for the public domain. It is not a project for technological innovation, but it will certainly generate valuable information that is going to complement our project”, says Coutinho. In Brazil, one of the few initiatives was the doctoral project of Adilson Motta, a researcher from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which sequenced genes from the mammary glands of dairy cattle. “It was a one-off effort”, Coutinho recognizes. Last year, a consortium that brought together Embrapa, the São Paulo State University (Unesp) and Esalq tried to get funds from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT) for sequencing the bovine genome. “But the project was not approved”, recalls Coutinho.

It is known that the cattle genome has a similar size to that of humans and other mammals, something like 3 million base pairs, according to the NHGRI. Its functional analysis has enormous potential for increasing the production and the safety of food like meat and milk, and it may also help researchers to learn more about the human genome. “Comparing the human genome to ones from different organisms, we may be able to understand the structure and function of human genes better, and develop new strategies in the battle against human diseases”, explains Francis S. Collins, a director of the NHGRI.

More productivity
The Bela Vista Bovine Genetic Center has been investing in research into genetic improvement and improvement in the quality of meat for over a decade, always in partnership with universities. “For a country like Brazil, which has one of the largest herds of cattle in the world, applied scientific and technological research is extremely important”, says Jovelino Mineiro, Bela Vista’s president. “Functional analysis of the bovine genome is going to contribute towards overcoming the limitations related to growth, the quality of the meat, the health and reproductive efficiency of the Brazilian herd”, he adds.

In the assessment of Josê Fernando Perez, genomics opens up new prospects for partnership between private enterprise and the academic environment. Some projects implemented by FAPESP are now making clear the good prospects for business with genomics. For example, FORESTS is carrying out the sequencing and functional analysis of the genes of the eucalyptus, in partnership with Duratex, Ripasa, Suzano and Votorantim Celulose e Papel, with the objective of seeking mechanisms for increasing the sector’s productivity. “Genomics also contributes towards the formation of biotechnology industries’, he says, citing the examples of Alellyx, Scyla and CanaVialis, companies that were gestated in the research laboratories of universities and research institutes in São Paulo.

Cattle raising accounts for 8.39% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Brazil is the second largest producer of cattle in the world, with a herd of 166.9 million animals, an annual production of 7.2 million tons, and exports in the order of US$ 1.05 billion. The herd is made up, in its majority, by animals of the Nelore race and its crossbreeds with European races (Bos taurus ). The levels of production and reproduction of the herd are very low, jeopardizing the competitiveness of Brazilian production in the globalized market.

The system has made massive investments in genetic improvement programs, with the acquisition of imported germoplasm (animals and semen) for crossbreeding programs. Bets are also being placed on the development of vaccines and growth-promoting hormones, in an attempt to minimize the consequences of low efficiency in production. Genomics is arising as an opportunity for generating new information that will make it possible to develop new technologies applicable to the production of cattle, with great commercial prospects.