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USDA Funded Research Leads to Key Discoveries in the Pig Genome

Media Contact: Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2012 – Research conducted and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has led to a new analysis of the pig genome, revealing new similarities between pigs and humans that could potentially advance biomedical research significantly. Additional findings from the study, reported today in the journal Nature, may also lead to better breeding strategies, improved pork production and improvements to human health. The research was conducted by a global team of scientists as part of the International Swine Genome Sequence Consortium (ISGSC).

“This new swine genome sequence analysis helps us understand the genetic mechanisms that enable high-quality pork production, feed efficiency and resistance to disease,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “This knowledge can ultimately help producers breed high-quality swine, lower production costs and improve sustainability. My congratulations to the International Swine Genome Sequence Consortium for this tremendous achievement.”

The study found that the pig and its cousin the wild boar have much in common with humans. Researchers compared the genome of a common farm pig, Sus scrofa domesticus, with those of 10 wild boars – all from different parts of Europe and Asia. Newly discovered details of the evolution Sus scrofa from the domestic pig first emerged in Southeast Asia and gradually migrated across Eurasia. The team found many significant genetic differences between the Asian and European wild boars, which separated from one another around one million years ago. Understanding the genetic origins of modern pigs is important in breeding efforts for disease resistance and growth efficiency.

Scientists from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) developed the first-ever genetic linkage map of the pig genome in 1994, laying the groundwork for subsequent sequencing efforts, and have provided collaboration and scientific expertise throughout the sequencing process. ARS scientists at Beltsville, Md., working as part of the international team, contributed to the manual annotation—the process of identifying genes and determining and describing what those genes do—of more than 1,400 swine genes related to immunity. This work provided a basic description of the portion of the genome devoted to the animal’s immune response. The ARS scientists’ work revealed a high degree of similarity in the immunity genes of pigs and humans, a discovery that could contribute significantly toward the use of swine as a model in studies of both human and animal health and increase the potential of the pig as a biomedical model.

The ISGSC is led by Lawrence Schook, vice president for research at the University of Illinois; Professor Martien Groenen at Wageningen University in The Netherlands; and Professor Alan Archibald at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Schook received grants for his work from NIFA. Gary Rohrer, Joan Lunney and Harry Dawson from ARS also contributed to the work done by ISGSC. 

Much of the pioneering work done in support of the ISGSC has its roots in the National Research Support Project 8 (NRSP8) and NIFA’s support of the U.S. Pig Genome Coordination program. The work of this program – initial gene discovery and mapping and the sharing of reagents and mapping tools – was crucial for the early work that led up to the sequencing of the pig genome.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.

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