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Study mines blood-cell data

Iowa State University scientists are leading a new study to mine the intricate content of pig blood cells to improve selection for disease resilience.

“We’re looking for new more effective ways to measure and predict different traits in pigs, especially disease resilience,” said Christopher Tuggle, professor of animal science and the lead investigator on a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Many of the traits pork producers want to improve by genetic selection are difficult to measure and predict,” Tuggle said. “Growth rate is easy to measure, and as a result, we’ve made significant improvements in this area. Disease resilience, on the other hand, is much more challenging and an area where we haven’t made enough progress.”

Blood samples are often used as a practical way to search for markers of disease or immunity.

“Blood is easily collected and can tell a lot, but blood is a very complex mixture of cells doing lots of things,” he said. “To make blood useful as a test for disease resistance, we need to better understand the composition of the cells and their numbers, as well as learn what they are actually doing.”

Tuggle explains that a neutrophil is a frontline soldier in the immune system that attacks invading disease threats immediately. It has a different expression pattern of its genes than lymphocytes, like B cells, which make antibodies that enhance disease resistance over time.

“One of our primary purposes is to very accurately measure the nature of all these different types of cells under different conditions,” he said. “This will improve our ability to link the phenotypes of blood cells (traits we can measure) with an animal’s health status, such as what is a B cell doing and how is it changing when an animal is healthy versus when it is sick?”

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