Preserving Livestock Genetic Diversity

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Photo by Getty Images/heebyj
Genetic diversity is essential for maintaining healthy livestock.

Just as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway is striving to preserve irreplaceable seeds for future generations, the National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) in Fort Collins, Colorado, has a mission to preserve livestock genetic diversity. Working as part of the Agricultural Research Service, the NAGP has built a germplasm resource base that reflects the diversity of current livestock populations. The NAGP now holds nearly a million DNA samples from over 150 breeds of domesticated animals — the world’s largest assortment of livestock genetic material. This spans species from pigs, cows, and chickens to “wild” animals, such as elk, yaks, and bison.

One motivation for building this collection is to prevent diseases from permanently decimating global livestock populations. A 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease across Britain led to the destruction of millions of infected cattle and sheep and billions in lost revenue for farmers. Such large-scale outbreaks risk becoming unprecedented tragedies for current livestock diversity. But losing an entire species to disease doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gone for good if genetic information is stored in the NAGP’s freezers. The NAGP also hopes to use its stock of samples to alleviate genetic bottlenecks from dwindling diversity. Holstein cows represent one such genetic dead end; decades of breeding stock from only two bulls in the 1800s has severely limited the breed’s genetic diversity, leading to infertility and other health problems. The NAGP hopes to offer options for reintroducing diversity to a breed or species if needed, to avoid similar genetic limitations in the future. Read about the project by searching for “national animal germplasm program” at  the USDA website.

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