Project aims to boost bison’s genetic diversity

U of S researchers will develop tools so that they can detect bison that have been hybridized between Plains and Wood

The world’s first bison genome biobank is being developed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence.

The university was recently awarded $6.76 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to help revive the bison population and strengthen the cattle industry.

It’s part of a Canada-led effort to conserve bison and other threatened animal species like caribou, as well as address challenges facing the beef industry.

“We don’t have a robust gene pool as we did back in the 1800s. By 1900, less than 0.1 percent of the bison population remained. There were only about 400 bison left on the planet and that was down from over 30 million,” said Gregg Adams, a specialist in reproductive biology at the university’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Canada has led the way in bison conservation, but bison numbers remain at less than two percent of their historic population today.

However, mistakes made along the way to conserve the species created a “genetic bottleneck,” which inevitably resulted in the loss of much of the old evolutionary robustness, said Adams.

In an effort to rebuild the herd, conservationists put the remaining bison in small genetically isolated herds. And during the 1920s, Plains bison were introduced into Wood Buffalo National Park, which is an indigenous area for Wood bison.

“So now we don’t in fact know if there are any true Wood bison in Wood Buffalo National Park anymore. We don’t know the extent of how much that has altered the robustness of our bison and that’s what we’re developing tools to do,” said Adams.

“Part of this project will be to develop tools so that we can detect bison that have been hybridized between Plains and Wood. And in addition to that hybridized with domestic cattle, which has also been a conservation legacy that we have to deal with now.”

Researchers will apply genomics and other emerging technologies called omics, which refers to a field of study in biological sciences that usually end with “omics”, such as genomics, metabolomics, microbiomics and bioformatics, to the beef sector to enhance production, livestock health, food safety, and reduce greenhouse gases.

It’s an effort to integrate omics into livestock and conservation management.

Beef producers are expected to benefit through the development of new genomic tools that will enable trait selection, enhanced genetic diversity and diagnosis of disease-causing microbes in herds.

This would make it easier to identify and breed cattle for better meat quality, stronger immunity against disease, improved production efficiency and better adaptation to their environment.

Compared to beef cattle that are managed less extensively, Adams said the use of genomics is nothing new in dairy cattle, pigs or poultry.

“We haven’t taken advantage of that in the beef industry yet and I think it’s ready. We stand to make rapid gains if we can use this properly. That will help us not only select for production gains, but it’ll also help us to select for other characteristics that are increasingly important like sustainability, efficiency, emission of greenhouse gases, or traits of cattle that give them the behaviour of foraging on more rough marginal land,” Adams said.

The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence has kept 50 Plains and 50 Wood bison on surrounding land near Clavet, Sask., for about 12 years, allowing researchers to develop the tools to make a functional and diverse biobank.

“The development of a functional biobank like this is really a first in the world. There have been some efforts that have used semen only, but there is no biobank that I’m aware of that includes both embryos and semen and the genomic information that goes along with them.”

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