Careers in Animal Genetics
The birds and the bees aren’t quite what they used to be. Increased scientific intervention in animal reproduction poses many social and ethical questions.
What are Genetics?Genetics are about the study of inherited DNA, an identification pattern unique to each individual. Genes are passed on from parents to offspring (heredity) and determine factors such as colouring patterns, fertility and reproductive genes, but they also pass on inherited diseases and disorders. Genetic engineering involves making changes to the DNA of a cell for the improvement of plants and animals bred by man.
Why Mess with Nature?The science of animal genetics is not new, it started in the 1800s during the agricultural revolution! Cross-breeding (within the same species) to improve milk yield in dairy cattle, ovulation rates in poultry; both are examples of manipulating animal genetics. Studies provide genetic information about animals, not only so they may be improved upon to meet market demands, but also to aid the conservation of genes and investigate the genetic components of farm animal diseases like foot and mouth.
Here in the UK, for example, we have around 130 rare native breeds of farm animals, the majority of which are endangered species. Animal genetics is not necessarily about creating monsters, it can be used to preserve the integrity of breeds that may otherwise face extinction.
In the UK, herd and flock books are kept to register every birth, death and movement of the animals through their entire life cycles. There are genetic nucleus farms, a national breed database and multiple ovulation embryo transfer herds, all mind-boggling scientific stuff that, to most of us, on the surface look like any other field of sheep/cows/brood mares.
Genetic Worth or ValueThere are different criteria for different animals, but, broadly speaking, an animal that has proven, consistently good, attributes suitable for the improvement of its species is regarded as having high genetic worth. A cow that calves easily and produces a high yield of quality milk has genetic worth. Animals that show strong disease-resistant traits have genetic value, as does livestock with desirable growth patterns.
Certain coloured and coloured patterned horses are sought by some horse breeders. They want the genes of their leopard spot, blanket spot or whatever else appaloosa to be passed on. Animal geneticists are able to advise on selection of potential mates to increase the probability of a certain colour and type of marking being kept.
Working in GeneticsThe subject of genetics is a complex and sensitive one. Hybrids that can be created by using human DNA with that of animals may have the potential for research into therapeutic cloning, but they seem a long way from cross-breeding dairy cattle.
Any aspect of working in animal genetics requires an intelligent and studious approach. The diversity of career opportunities under this one heading is enormous. Academic qualifications, such as degrees in biology, zoology, BSc, MSc, PhD in animal sciences, together with knowledge and preferably experience of breeding, health and management of specific farm animal species, are recommended. For further specialism within this area, titles like computational biologist, molecular bioinformatics, statistical geneticists and researcher into the pathogenesis of diseases may appeal.
Good communication skills are necessary (not just for the pronunciation of those titles) and the ability to work alone and in a team is desirable. An interest in research and animal welfare is essential.
For those who need more experience related to animal behaviour, production, nutrition and reproduction, there are sometimes opportunities to attend field trips as unpaid volunteers.