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Modern genetechnology helps ensure the food supply of the future

Genomic selection has revolutionised livestock breeding in Denmark. Now scientists from AU are on the brink of being able to apply detailed analyses of the genome to plant breeding. This is an important step towards ensuring a sustainable food supply for the 8 billion people who will inhabit the planet in the future.

At Aarhus University, making a contribution to addressing society’s challenges through research is viewed as a natural part of our mission. In Denmark as well as internationally. To do so requires an interdisciplinary effort.

Higher yields, better reproduction, health and welfare for livestock, a smaller climate footprint and lower production costs: Is it really possible to have it all? Thanks to modern gene technology, which AU scientists have contributing to developing in relation to cattle and pigs, the answer is yes. The gene technology breakthroughs developed by the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics are now being applied to plant breeding and other livestock.

Shifting into high gear
For generations, farmers have worked to increase yields of meat and milk from their cattle. Traditional breeding required a long process of selecting breeding animals on the basis of how their offspring performed. But then a revolution took place: the development of genomic selection. Genomic selection makes it possible to base the selection of breeding animals on an analysis of the animal’s genome, which stores all of an animal’s heritable information. Aarhus University scientists have participated in the development of a test that makes it possible to evaluate the quality of breeding stock by using a blood or tissue sample to analyse the genome of an animal directly. As a result, it is possible to identify the best breeding stock much more accurately and earlier. Previously, it was necessary for a bull to sire cows and wait until they began producing milk to assess the bull’s value as breeding stock. Now the assessment can be performed within few days of a bull calf’s birth on the basis of a DNA analysis of a blood or tissue sample. This save fives years in the breeding process. “We calculate that this technology means 50 percent greater progress in cattle breeding,” says Associate Professor Bernt Guldbrandtsen from GenSAP, the Center for Genomic Selection in Animals and Plants at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Genomic selection in grasses
The gene technology that revolutionised livestock breeding is now being applied to plant breeding. One example is the project ForageSelect. PhD student Dario Fé and Professor Just Jensen from GenSAP are working on the project in collaboration with the world’s leading grass seed breeding company, Danish DLF Trifolium. The aim of the project is to apply genomic selection to improve rye grass, which is used as animal feed. “Existing breeding programmes are time-consuming and expensive. It takes at least ten years to produce a product that can be marketed. What’s more, progress in breeding for certain traits is relatively limited,” explains Fé. Genomic selection will make breeding programmes faster and more effective. The scientists expect greater progress in improving yields, seed production, stress tolerance and disease resistance. At the same time, they expect to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a consequence of improved digestibility and a reduction in the plants’ nitrogen requirements without a reduction in yield. The preliminary results from the implementation of genomic selection in the breeding of grasses look promising. Researchers’ results already indicate that there is potential to develop grasses with resistance to the devastating fungal disease crown rust.

Deeper roots, healthier crops
Another example of gene technology advances in the plant kingdom is RadiMax, a new project that will apply genomic selection to develop crops with deeper roots. Senior Scientist Torben Asp and Professor Just Jensen of GenSAP are collaborating with other Danish universities and plant breeding companies on the project. Deeper roots will improve plants’ uptake of water and nutrients. They also make plants more robust and better adapted to changes in weather conditions causes by climate change, which means stronger growth and higher yields. This new gene technology can be spread to countries that are in a position to collect the necessary information, perform the necessary DNA analyses and build up the necessary genetic databases. “This new technology is really worth spreading, for as we know, we will have to feed many more people without destroying the earth in the process,” explains Guldbrandtsen.

GenSAP (the Center for Genomic Selection in Animals and Plants) is working to build the foundation for next generation genomic selection tools for genetic improvement schemes in agricultural plants and animals.
GenSAP is a strategic research centre at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics that was established in 2013 at the AU Foulum research centre.
GenSAP has a total budget of DKK 68.7 million for the period 2013-17, including a grant from InnovationsFunden (the Danish innovation foundation).

Genomics and genomic selection
Genome: The full complement of genetic material within an organism
Genomics: The study of genomes and their function, specifically the identification and sequencing of their constituent genes and the application of this knowledge
Genomic selection: a form of selection that uses markers from the whole genome to improve breeding value.
Genomic selection can be combined with phenotypic data and pedigrees in order to further enhance breeding value.

ForageSelect is a four-year project headed by the Danish clover and grass seed supplier DLF Trifolium. Scientists from Aarhus University are collaborating on the project. The goal of ForageSelect is to apply genomic selection to grasses in order to improve breeding programmes.
ForageSelect has a total budget of DKK 18.6 million that includes a DKK 10.2 million grant from the Danish AgriFish Agency.

RadiMax is a four-year project headed by the Danish clover and grass seed supplier DLF Trifolium. Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University are also involved in the project, along with the potato breeding company LKF Vandel and the grain breeding companies Nordic Seed and Sejet Planteforædling. The objective of RadiMax is to develop crops with deeper roots, which will improve water and nutrient uptake.
RadiMax has a total budget of DKK 21 million, including a DKK 10 million grant from InnovationsFonden.