(COLLEGE STATION) Dr. James E. Womack, a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, has been awarded a $1 million research grant from the Robert J. Kleberg and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation for cattle genome research. Womack was the recipient of the prestigious 2001 Wolf Prize in agriculture and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
Domestic cattle have a rich history as animal models for the study of human medicine. By comparing the human genome with the genomes of different organisms such as cattle and mice, researchers can better understand the structure and function of human genes that can lead to the development of new strategies in the battle against human and animal diseases.
“This research will help us understand what makes bovine breeds and individuals different with respect to reproduction, lactation, growth, bone structure, fat deposition, altitude and heat tolerance, and resistance to specific pathogens which will be invaluable in clarifying physiological processes important to human health,” says Womack.
“We’ll be focusing on understanding the differences in specific genes in cattle that show a resistance or susceptibility to potentially damaging pathogens to the United States and Texas cattle industry,” Womack says. A major state of urgency for this research now exists due to the discovery of two animals with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease in the U.S. and the increasing threat of agricultural bioterrorism.
“The grant allows the scientists in the Center for Animal Biotechnology and Genomics at Texas A&M University to begin to take advantage of the flow of information generated from the $53 million bovine sequencing initiative currently underway at the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston,” says Womack. “Valuable sequence data are already being generated, and the first draft of the bovine genome sequence was publicly announced in October, 2004.”
This exciting new field of biological research called comparative genomics allows researchers like Womack and others around the world to efficiently use an organism’s genome in comparative studies. “In simple terms, we will be overlaying the bovine genes on the genes of humans and mice and comparing the differences not only between species but within the species,” Womack explains.
The goal of the research, says Womack, is to identify specific gene variations in selected breeds of cattle that include both European and Asian breeds. “We will be targeting resistance and susceptibility to diseases of interest including BSE and Johne’s Disease as well as those that pose a potential bioterrorism threat such as Foot and Mouth and Rift Valley Fever.”
Womack says he will be employing graduate students, post-doctoral students and additional staff to work with him on the project. “We have most of the equipment we will need, so the majority of the grant will be used for staffing and supplies.”
One project specifically funded by the grant will involve developing better computational tools to analyze information known as bio-informatics,” says Womack. “This project will be under the direction of Drs. David Adelson and Christine Elsik in the Department of Animal Science.
Womack has received many prestigious honors and belongs to numerous professional associations in the field of genetics. He is the W.P. Luse Professor of Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. In addition, he is a member of the Faculty of Genetics and holds a joint academic appointment in the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Genetics. He serves as Coordinator of the USDA-CSREES National Cattle Genome Project, is the current President of the International Society for Animal Genetics, and past President of the American Genetics Association and the Texas Genetics Society. He was the recipient of the 1994 CIBA prize for research in animal health.
Womack has published, with students and associates, more than 300 peer reviewed articles in scientific journals. His research interests are comparative genomics, mapping the bovine genome and the genetic basis of disease resistance in mammals.
The research grant is officially a two-year project, but will probably be stretched over a four to five year period, according to Womack. Research is expected to begin within the next two weeks.
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