AgResearch Centre for Reproduction

June 2009

A new centre for the study of reproduction and genomics

AgResearch has built and just opened on its Invermay campus, Mosgiel, a Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, in collaboration with University of Otago. The purpose-built $16 million facility is called the Christie Building, after the former AgResearch chairman Rick Christie. It houses two teams from AgResearch – Animal Genomics under Theresa Wilson and Reproductive Biology under Jenny Juengel. The Animal Genomics group has 50 scientists and technicians. This item looks at the Centre and its purposes, as well as providing an example of the work carried out – which is only possible because of the sequencing of the bovine genome.

AgResearch at Invermay and the University of Otago in Dunedin have collaborated since the late 1970s, in science fields such as animal and human reproduction, sheep, cattle and deer genomics, developmental biology, biometrics and computing, tuberculosis and Johne’s Disease. Many of these disciplines are now brought under the CRG, which is a formalized collaboration between AgResearch and the university, sharing staff members and research tasks.

The Christie Centre was opened late last year, at a cost of $16 million, and Professor Neil Gemmell has been appointed director. Neil holds the AgResearch Chair in the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology at the University of Otago and his principal research interest is in reproduction, mating systems and mate choice, sperm-egg interactions, sperm function, sex determination, sex allocation, and inter-sexual genomic conflict. In these areas human medicine overlaps animal genetics. Bringing complementary capabilities and resources under one roof creates a centre of excellence with international recognition. AgResearch chief executive Andy West expects the centre to address issues of ecological sustainability arising out of climate change and human population growth putting the food supply system under increasing stress. An improved understanding of the reproductive systems in farm animals will be needed, West said.

“The individual scientists who form the Centre have already done extraordinary things with bold research and by coming together here we can do even better and hopefully be among the first to tackle pretty significant problems in human and animal health and reproduction,” Neil Gemmell said.

“The scope for the new Centre is broad. In this genomic age, the acquisition and use of core biological data is now standardized across a whole swag of different disciplines. New genomic knowledge must be applied in creative ways to solve the challenges that New Zealand faces,” he said.

A key feature of the new Centre is large, open-plan laboratories, easily adapted to different work programmes and supported with specialist rooms and open-plan staff areas. The animal surgeries in the new building will mainly be used for embryo transfer.

New Zealand researchers participated in the sequencing of the bovine genome, which is expected to revolutionise breeding and boost efficiency of milk and meat production. The project involved 300 researchers from 25 countries and took six years. It is the first genome sequence of any ruminant and of any livestock species and it consists of 29 pairs of chromosomes (not including X and Y) and at least 22,000 protein coding genes, now seen to be significantly re-organised since domestication of cattle.

As with other species, genes governing the immune system, the metabolism of nutrients and social interaction appear to be where much of the evolutionary action has occurred. The result is an animal that lives peacefully in herds and grows large on low-quality food, thanks to the billions of bacteria it carries around.

The scientists meticulously mapped the 2870 billion DNA building blocks that provide the code for the cow’s 22,000 genes (about 14,000 of which are common to all mammals, including humans).

New Zealand research interests contributed about $2 million to the US$53 million project.

The availability of very large numbers of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, which are DNA changes in the genetic blueprint) has allowed the development of gene chips that measure genetic variation in cattle populations and will allow the rapid selective breeding of animals with higher value commercial traits.

This technology is quickly transforming the dairy genetics industry and has the potential to dramatically alter beef cattle industries as well. These new genetic tools may provide a means to select more energy-efficient animals with a smaller environmental footprint, particularly animals that produce less greenhouse gas.

Further, the bovine genomic sequence is benefitting other livestock industries in this country; it has been used as a backbone, enabling the generation of a sheep sequence and SNP chip at a fraction of the cost of the bovine programme. And Invermay CRG could generate deer SNP chips at an even lower cost.