Researchers from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the chief intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are ensuring that the genetic diversity of our livestock doesn’t disappear, and the key player in that mission is the National Animal Germplasm Collection.
The Collection is the largest of its kind, storing over a million germplasms, samples of tissue or other living genetic material, from 31,000 different domestic animals. Samples from conventional livestock, including pigs, chickens, cattle, and farmed fish are stored in the Collection, as well as unexpected species such as bison, elk and even yaks, because they are also raised for food and wool.
The mission is to build a germplasm collection as diverse as our present livestock populations, allowing it to serve as insurance against disasters like the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that hit Britain in 2001.
“An incident like that could easily decimate the gene pool of a livestock species and cost billions in lost revenue,” explained ARS geneticist Harvey Blackburn, who oversees the Collection. “And dead is dead-and-gone if there aren’t backups in the freezer as the National Animal Germplasm Collection has in Fort Collins, Colorado.”
The Collection is currently helping to pry open a genetic bottleneck in the Holstein dairy breed, which has been plagued with a decline in both fertility and genetic diversity. All pedigrees of Holstein A.I. sires currently trace back to just two bulls in the 1880s, but at least two other lineages from the 1880s still existed in the Holstein genome as late as the 1960s. The Collection has been able to acquire donations of frozen semen from both of those lines, and that acquisition should be able to greatly help the Holstein breeding pool.
Read more about the Collection here.