Texas A&M Researchers Unlock Quarter Horse Genome

COLLEGE STATION, TX – A truly American horse breed, the American Quarter Horse first came to being in the early colonial era in America. And in a study recently reported in the journal, BMC Genomics, researchers at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), working with collaborators in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the AgriLife Genomics and Bioinformatics Center, have sequenced the first Quarter Horse genome – unlocking the secrets of what makes this breed so unique.

Dr. Scott DindotGenome sequencing is not a new science, but advances in sequencing technology, often referred to as next-generation sequencing, have made it easier and cheaper to sequence the genome of an individual, which can then be analyzed for clues causing genetic disorders and distinctive traits. The Texas A&M Quarter Horse is the first horse to be sequenced using next-generation sequencing technology.

“Genome sequencing aids our study of normal and abnormal genetic variation,” said Dr. Scott Dindot, Assistant Professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at the CVM. “This project is important because it is a start towards understanding what genetic factors make breeds unique, and what mutations may play a role in presenting or diagnosing disease.

Dr. Noah Cohen, Professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the CVM and collaborator in the study, underscored the importance of the role genetic variation plays in the disease process.

“This study represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of genetic variation in horses,” said Cohen, “including efforts to study the relationship between genetic variation and susceptibility to important diseases in Quarter Horses and other breeds.”

The first horse genome to be sequenced and assembled, a Thoroughbred mare, was completed by a large international consortium. This reference assembly was used to map the Quarter Horse genome and to identify differences in genetic information between the two horses. The sequence data from the project has been made available publicly for researchers interested in equine genetics.

“The horse used in the study, a mare named Sugar, is the descendant of key foundation sires in the Quarter Horse breed,” added Dindot. “We were able to identify several genetic variants in this mare, both good and bad, known to be common among Quarter Horses. Results from this study have increased our knowledge of genetic variation in horses three- to four-fold, and proved that through collaborations such as this, we can one day apply this state-of-the-art technology to identify and possibly to manage genetic disorders not only in horses, but also in other species.”

The genome sequence of a Quarter Horse has a the potential to have a tremendous impact on the equine industry, as the American Quarter Horse Association represents the largest breed registry in the United States. The information from this study may lead to improvements in performance in horses, and facilitate the management of health of horses everywhere.

“Many diseases and ‘syndromes’ are the result of genetic variation,” said Dr. Jason Sawyer, Texas AgriLife Research scientist and Associate Professor of animal science. “Perhaps more importantly, the ability to combat infectious diseases may be greatly impacted by the underlying genome and the variation that arises during recombination. This study has identified areas of variation that may play a role in the health and disease resistance of horses. While more research must be done to specifically identify desirable and beneficial variants, this study has set the stage to enable those future studies.”

Funding for the study was provided by the G. Willard and Ginger Pool Equine Teaching and Research Endowment, the Link Equine Research Endowment, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M Department of Animal Science, and the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at the CVM.

A&M Researcher Receives Grant from the American Heart Association

The human body has the amazing ability to respond to disease and trauma by growing new blood vessels that in turn supply injured or diseased tissues with increased amounts of oxygen and nutrients. In some cases, such as with cancer, malignant cells can actually “hijack” this process and force the growth of new blood vessels to feed a tumor. Many therapies and treatments currently in practice attempt to destroy these new blood vessels in hopes of “starving” the invading cells.

Rivera Lab TeamNew research funded by the American Heart Association and conducted by Dr. Gonzalo Rivera, assistant professor in veterinary pathobiology at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, aims to understand the formation of new blood vessels (called angiogenesis) with the hope to discover ways to prevent their growth before it happens.

“Our laboratory focuses on cellular physiology with particular emphasis on the processes that determine cell shape, movement, and invasion,” said Rivera. “These are fundamental aspects in development and disease that are dependent on changes in the cytoskeleton, a meshwork composed of many copies of building blocks that fit together – just like the Legos blocks that children play with – to form cellular structures and appendages that aid in movement. While we address fundamental questions concerning the biology of the cytoskeleton, we also strive to instill a translational character to our research – the applicability of new knowledge to the better understanding of disease progression and potential cures. As such, our long-term goal is to understand the role of the cytoskeleton in biomedically relevant phenomena, including angiogenesis and tumor progression and metastasis.”

Research in the Rivera lab relies on a variety of tools and techniques ranging from molecular and cellular biology, to proteomics (which combines molecular genetics and biochemistry to investigate protein function at the cell level), to high-resolution optical microscopy. Rivera’s team is able to combine these techniques to better observe cell movement and growth.

“Using these approaches and with the support of this new grant from the American Heart Association, we will address the outstanding critical issues of how endothelial cells (cells lining our blood vessels) integrate multiple clues from the surrounding tissues and translate them into internal biochemical signals; and how cytoskeletal changes induced by the these biochemical signals influence vascular formation and organization,” notes Rivera.

The results from this research will expand the knowledge that researchers have about how the body responds to trauma and disease at the cellular level, providing new opportunities to develop therapies for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and traumatic injury. Dr. Rivera credits the success in securing these funds to the hard work and dedication of team members Dr. Sankar P. Chaki (Postdoctoral Research Associate) and Ms. Rajeswhari Yog (Research Assistant), as well as the highly supportive environment of the CVM, and particularly, the Department of Pathobiology and the Image Analysis Laboratory.

CUTLINE FOR ABOVE PHOTO: Dr. Gonzalo Rivera (center) is assisted in his lab by Dr. Sankar P. Chaki (Postdoctoral Research Associate, right) and Ms. Rajeswhari Yog (Research Assistant, left) in investigating the role of cytoskeletal proteins in the development and function of blood vessels in the hopes that the answers they find can one day be used to fight diseases like cancer and traumatic injury.

Researchers Greatly Improve Evolutionary Tree of Life for Mammals

International team, led by Texas A&M and UC Riverside, provides robust molecular phylogeny for mammalian families.

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS -An international research team led by researchers at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and University of California, Riverside (UCR) has released for the first time a large and robust DNA matrix that has representation for 99 percent of mammalian families, and covers the deepest divergences among all living mammals.

Dr. Bill Murphy
Dr. Bill Murphy

“Our study, a collaboration led by researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of California, Riverside together with members of several international institutions, represents the culmination of a five year project aimed at using large genetic datasets to better understand the evolutionary history of mammalian families and genera,” said William Murphy, associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at the CVM, who co-led the research project with Mark Springer, professor of Biology at UCR. “Our findings now clarify how mammals should be properly classified, and provides us with a better understanding of the environmental and ecological basis for why mammals diversify, and a proper comparative and temporal framework for understanding the genetic changes that have led to their remarkably diversity in size and form.

Phylogeny is the history of organismal lineages as they change through time. A vast evolutionary tree, called the Tree of Life, represents the phylogeny of organisms, the genealogical relationships of all living things.

As most introductory biology textbooks will show, organisms are biologically classified according to a hierarchical system characterized by seven main taxonomic ranks: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species. For example, humans are known taxonomically as Homo sapiens. Their genus is Homo, the family is Hominidae, the order is Primates and the class is Mammalia.

“To estimate when different mammal groups split we used a ‘relaxed clock’ approach which allows rates of DNA to change across the tree of mammals,” said Murphy. “To produce reliable estimates requires that we have access to a large collection of well established fossil constraints to estimate rates of changes on different branches of the tree, and then we can convert the tree of relationships into a time tree, in which the branches are scaled in proportion to time. This time tree allows us to examine when different groups of mammals originated and diversified, and then associate factors which might have been responsible for these diversification events.”

Study results appear in the September 22 issue of Science Express.

“Our phylogeny, underpinned by a large number of genes, sets the stage for us to understand how the different mammalian species are related to each other,” Springer said. “That will help us understand when these species diverged from each other. It will allow us to look for taxonomic rates of increase or decrease over time in different groups in various parts of the world so that we can understand these diversification rate changes in relationship to important events in Earth’s history – such as the diversification of flowering plants and changes associated with climatic events. Researchers routinely make use of phylogenies in diverse fields such as ecology, physiology, and biogeography, and the new phylogeny for mammalian families provides a more accurate framework for these studies.

“When you understand how taxa are related to each other,” Springer added, “you can start to understand which changes at the genome level underpin key morphological changes associated with, say, flight and echolocation in bats or loss of teeth in toothless mammals. In other words, you can pinpoint key molecular changes that are associated with key morphological changes. This would be extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, without the kind of robust molecular phylogeny we have developed.”

The research team looked for spikes in the diversification history of mammals and used an algorithm to determine whether the rate of diversification was constant over time or whether there were distinct pulses of rate increases or decreases.

“For example, we observed a distinct pulse of diversification when most of the mammalian orders began splitting from one another, near the end of the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolutions when flowering plants and insects diversified, and also at a time when sea levels changed and continental boundaries became reorganized,” said Murphy.

Murphy and colleagues also detected a second spike in the diversification history of mammals at the end of the Cretaceous – 65.5 million years ago, when dinosaurs, other large terrestrial vertebrates, and many marine organisms went extinct, opening up a vast ecological space.

“We also found evidence that the Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass extinction, which occurred 65.5 million years ago (Mya) and was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, other large terrestrial vertebrates and many marine organisms, also promoted diversification of mammals into their larger and more specialized modern forms by filling the ecological void left by the organisms that went extinct,” Murphy highlighted.

The research team also reports that their results contradict the “delayed rise of present-day mammals” hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, introduced by a team of scientists in a 2007 research paper, the ancestors of living mammals underwent a pulse of diversification around 50 million years ago, possibly in response to the extinction of archaic mammals that went extinct at the end of the Paleocene (around 56 million years ago). The earlier extinction event around 65.5 million years ago, which resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs, had no effect on the diversification of the ancestors of extant mammals, according to the 2007 research paper.

“Our results contradict findings of an earlier study published in 2007 which claimed the rise of modern mammals was somehow delayed until around 50 Maya, presumably in response to the extinction of a group of archaic mammals. Our study finds no evidence for such a delay, and validates a role for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass extinction in the diversification of modern orders of mammals,” Murphy said.

The researchers stress that their time tree is a work in progress. In the next two years, they expect to construct a supermatrix, also based on gene sequences, and include the majority of living mammalian species. The current work incorporates 164 mammalian species.

“This study is the beginning of a larger plan to use large molecular data sets and sophisticated techniques for dating and estimating rates of diversification to resolve much larger portions of the mammalian tree, ultimately including all described species, as well as those that have gone recently extinct or for which only museum material may be available,” said Murphy. “Only then can we really begin to understand the role of the environment and events in earth history in promoting the generation of living biodiversity. This phylogeny also serves as a framework to understand the history of the unique changes in the genome that underlie the vast morphological diversity observed in the more than 5400 living species of mammals.”

Murphy and Springer were joined in the study by researchers at UCR; the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Calif.; University College Dublin, Ireland; PUCRS, Brazil; Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule Zurich, Switzerland; UC Berkeley; Pepperdine University, Calif.; American Museum of Natural History, NY; University of Stellenbosch, South Africa; Chaffey College, Calif.; LaTrobe University, Australia; and Washington and Lee University, Virginia.

Jan E. Janecka, research assistant professor in genomics, and Colleen Fisher, Texas A&M graduate student, in Murphy’s research group performed the bulk of the lab work at Texas A&M. The UCR researchers include John Gatesy, an associate professor of biology; Robert Meredith, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author of the research paper; Angela Burk-Herrick, a former postdoctoral researcher; and Nadia A. Ayoub, a former postdoctoral researcher.

Murphy’s and Springer’s labs were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

Janecka’s Efforts to Save the Ocelot Population in Texas

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), native to Texas, Mexico, Central America, and South America, is similar in appearance to a domestic cat, but slightly larger and with a beautiful coat comparable to that of the leopard or jaguar. During the 20th century, people precipitated the ocelot’s decline in Texas by colonizing and removing their dense thorn-shrub habitat and taking advantage of their unique coat in the fur trade. This led to ocelot eradication in many areas where they were once common. Without conservation efforts, the ocelot may be wiped away from its native Texas habitat and become extinct in Texas.

OcelotsDr. Jan Janecka, a research assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and strong supporter of conservation efforts for many exotic cats, recently published a paper with the help of other researchers and scientists to understand the genetic diversity of ocelots and the reasons explaining their slow disappearance from Texas. The project generated a wealth of knowledge on the Texas ocelot population that will be incorporated into effective conservation initiatives designed to help species recovery and lead to eventual ocelot population growth in their native environment.

“There are only two ocelot populations left in Texas,” Janecka explains. “Over-harvest of the species and removal of habitat in the 1900s led to major population reductions. Today, ocelots in Texas are restricted to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and less than 80 remain between the two different populations, although there may be a few additional cats in nearby areas.”

Jan JaneckaJanecka adds, “Ocelots prefer a dense brush habitat, and they cannot move through large open land separating brush patches because of their shy nature. Dr. Michael Tewes [coordinator of the Feline Research Center and regents professor at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University – Kingsville] and his students and colleagues have radio-collared ocelots for over 30 years to understand their ecology, behavior, and dispersal patterns. Over this period, there has not been a single observed successful migration between the two populations in Texas. This is consistent with the genetic data that revealed complete isolation of these areas. This complete isolation results in genetic erosion and inbreeding depression that compromises persistence of the ocelots.”

Janecka’s research was the result of several important collaborations between different institutions including Texas A&M University (Jan Janecka, Rodney Honeycutt, William Murphy and Brian Davis), Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Texas A&M University-Kingsville (Mike Tewes, Jan Janecka, Aaron Haines, Arturo Caso, David Shindle) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (Linda Laack).

The small population size, the inability of ocelots to move through the fragmented habitat, and loss of genetic diversity in Texas all highlight that an initiative to help save the ocelots from extinction in Texas is imperative. The major players most important for ocelot conservation are the landowners whose ranches still have ocelot residing.

“Credibility is the key to working with the ranchers and landowners of South Texas,” Tewes explains. “I have spent over 30 years cultivating dozens of relationships with these critical landowners, and they realize that I am able to maintain confidentiality with them and the role they play for ocelot management.”

“Jan and his lab team work with Dr. Randy DeYoung [assistant professor and research scientist with the Feline Research Center at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University – Kingsville] and our molecular genetics lab to produce cutting-edge results and information critical in planning ocelot recovery,” Tewes says. “We also provide the field research on ocelots and interface with the various ranchers, while Jan contributes the key analyses and interpretations of data that identify the directions we need to pursue in ocelot management.”

The research team is developing partnerships with government agencies including Texas Parks and Wildlife and US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide incentives for landowners to support conservation efforts. They are also working closely with ranches to help initiate an education outreach program and an action plan for ocelot management.

“Ocelot conservation is occurring on several fronts,” Tewes explains. “I have formed a group of ranchers who are interested in learning about ocelot ecology or surveying for ocelots on their property. The key to ocelot recovery will be private landowners who own most of the land occupied by ocelots. We continue to document new ranches where ocelots occur, a process fundamental to their recovery. And we are monitoring their population size and change over different conditions such as drought. Eventually, we believe it is important to augment the existing ocelot populations in Texas in order to alleviate the problems associated with low genetic diversity identified in our collaborative research.”

This research indicates that the extinction rates in Texas have exceeded the rate of colonization, as populations have become reduced in abundance and distribution. Janecka and his team understand that the ocelot is an important part of the natural history of Texas. Janecka hopes that, with the research of his team, the work of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, and the cooperation of the landowners, the ocelot’s majestic beauty will be visible for future Texas generations to come.

Current Ocelot Distribution

Levine Receives DOD Grant to Aid with Spinal Cord Injuries

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS – The One Health Initiative is represented again at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). Dr. Jonathan Levine, assistant professor in neurology at the CVM, and his team were recently awarded a Department of Defense (DOD) grant worth over $900,000 to develop non-invasive treatments and therapies for spinal cord injuries (SCI) in dogs, with the hope of translating results to humans with SCI.

Dr. Jonathan Levine
Dr. Jonathan Levine

Levine’s study will focus on dogs with naturally occurring SCI and will run from October 2011 until October 2014. Levine’s prior SCI research has focused on spinal cord imaging and biological molecules associated with injury. With the help of this grant, Levine and his team hope to produce findings that may be more applicable to humans with SCI compared to traditional models, as dogs have similar injuries to humans.

“Because these injuries happen naturally they are more diverse,” explained Levine. “Affected dogs are out in the environment, they’re not all the same breed, the injuries don’t happen the same way. So the diversity probably gives a little advantage exploring theories into the possible treatment of dogs and humans with SCI.”

The DOD was particularly interested in Levine’s research because of the possible implications it may have on troops with SCI. Not only is SCI in humans physically debilitating, it can be extremely draining on the wallet. Described as the second most costly injury, a person who has sustained a SCI at age twenty-five may incur anywhere from $729,000 to $3.2 million in expenses over a lifetime.

Along with CVM researchers, Dr. Sharon Kerwin, Dr. George Lees, and Dr. Virginia Fajt, Levine will partner with two researchers at the University of California, San Francisco: Dr. Linda J. Noble-Haeusslin, professor with the department of neurological surgery and the department of physical therapy and rehabilitation science, and Dr. Tom Lue, professor and vice chair of urology.

“Noble and her team are leading researchers in traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries,” said Levine. “We are thrilled to have their expertise in working on this project.”

Clinical trials for this grant will be performed on young to middle aged canines with canine thoracolumbar intervertebral disk herniation (IVDH). IVDH is a spontaneous disease that is very similar to acute SCI in humans. Dachshunds represent about half of the cases.

The grant comes at a good time for Levine and his team, as the CVM will soon unveil the new Diagnostic Imaging and Cancer Treatment Center (DICTC). The DICTC will feature a 3 Tesla MRI which will help to advance Levine’s research efforts through high resolution diagnostic imaging.  This state-of-the-art MRI will produce these images much faster and the higher resolution images will make it easier to identify problems on the spinal cord with more precision than ever before.

Contact Information:
Angela G. Clendenin
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Morris Animal Foundation Supports CVM Researchers with $111,966

Morris Animal Foundation recently awarded over $100,000 to two principal investigators at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) to further their research on the advancements of animal health. Dr. Heather Wilson, assistant professor at the CVM, was awarded $47,749 over the period of two years for her work on the Evaluation of Cycoplamine as Therapy for Canine Bone Cancer. Dr. Noah Cohen, professor at the CVM, was awarded $64,217 over the period of two years for his research on Recognizing Age-related Differences in Immune Response of Foals.

Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles
Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles

Wilson’s research highlights the need to study cancer initiating cells, otherwise known as cancer stem cells, in dogs as bone cancer is prevalent in canines and the disease is genetically identical to humans. Wilson’s research hopes to identify and isolate the tumor initiating cells and eradicate them using drug therapy in dogs. Up to this point there has been little research in veterinary medicine regarding cancer stem cells. Wilson’s team consists of Sabina Sheppard, research assistant at the CVM, and Dr. Catherine Pfent, anatomic pathology resident at the CVM.

“Our research methods can best be described by the beehive metaphor,” explains Wilson. “The cancer stem cell is the queen bee and her drones are similar to the regular cancer cells. Without the presence of the queen bee the hive does not prosper, and will eventually die off. Our hopes are to find a way to target the cancer stem cells so the cancer does not succeed.”

Cohen’s research focuses on why neutrophils, major white blood cells, of newborn foals are less capable of functioning than neutrophils of older foals. Neutrophils play a critical role in protecting newborns against invading bacteria; bacterial infections are leading causes of disease and death in foals. Cohen and his research team are working to decipher which genes and their regulatory elements might explain the difference between the function of neutrophils of newborn and older foals. Dr. Scott Dindot, assistant professor at the CVM, Kyle Kuskie, veterinary technician at the CVM, and Dr. Jessica Nerren, associate research scientist at the CVM are collaborators on this project.

Dr. Noah Cohen“We hope to be able to better understand which biological pathways and cellular processes reduce the function of foal neutrophils so that we can devise means to improve their immunity at birth. This information will help us to better protect them against the bacterial infections that are their leading causes of disease and death,” says Cohen. “The Equine Infectious Disease Laboratory at Texas A&M University is dedicated to control and prevention of infectious disease of horses and foals, and this grant will help us to continue that goal.”  Moreover, the findings of this study likely will be relevant to neonates of other species (including human beings).

Morris Animal Foundation helps to support research to prevent, diagnose, treat, and even cure diseases in companion animals, horses, and wildlife. Recipients of the awards are selected through a rigorous review process carried out by Morris Animal Foundation’s scientific advisory boards. Since 1973, Morris Animal foundation has funded 67 studies at Texas A&M.

Texas A&M University Researchers Receive More Than $14 Million from the USDA for Cattle Research

COLLEGE STATION, TX – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded two major grants totaling more than $14 million to investigators at Texas A&M University (TAMU) for conducting research on Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) and feed efficiency. These issues are of vital economic significance to the cattle industry and are priority areas for improving cattle health and production. Researchers at the TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) will lead the research on the $9.2 million BRD project and will be key participants in the University of Missouri led $5 million project aimed at improving feed efficiency in cattle.

Dr. James WomackDr. James Womack, W.P. Luse Endowed & Distinguished Professor at the TAMU CVM, is the project director for the five-year grant to help reduce the incidence of BRD in beef and dairy cattle. BRD is the leading cause of disease death in beef and dairy cattle, resulting in annual losses of more than $690 million nationally.

With this grant, researchers hope to accomplish the goal of reducing the incidence of BRD through the identification of genetic components that provide resistance to pathogens that cause the disease. For this, Womack and his team will work with commercial feedlots to analyze the DNA of more than 6,000 cattle. The investigators will then develop selective breeding programs based on their research, which will result in improved animal health management strategies and provide an understanding of the biological interactions between the host and the disease-causing pathogens.

In addition to funding research, this grant will also help fund undergraduate, veterinary, and graduate education. It will also facilitate the translation of research into practical application in feedlots and dairy farms through a dedicated extension component.

“We have assembled an extremely strong team of research scientists, educators, and extension specialists to combat a serious and complex animal health issue with modern genomic technology,” explains Womack. “We have known for years that individual cattle vary in their response to the pathogens responsible for Bovine Respiratory Disease and that much of this variation is genetic. We now have the genomic tools to identify the basis for this variation at the DNA level and to utilize this information in selective breeding programs and animal health management. This project will be a model for the power of cooperation of major research and educational institutions and animal industries to make basic scientific discoveries, to train professionals in the application of these discoveries, and to translate new knowledge into economic gain along with improved animal health and welfare.”

“We are elated to have such innovative investigators who have afforded the opportunity for such a prominent grant to be housed at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences,” notes Dr. Eleanor Green, Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “The powerful collaborations brought together through this grant will revolutionize the beef and dairy industries by saving many animals and markedly increasing production.”

“This national funding is a clear recognition of the outstanding animal genomics program at the CVM, which is comprised of a National Academy of Sciences member and several internationally renowned scientists,” says Dr. Bhanu Chowdhary, Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies at the TAMU CVM. “We are extremely proud of this remarkable achievement by our faculty. Their contributions will bring about lasting improvement in two areas of economic importance to the cattle industry – health and production.”

While TAMU is the lead institution on this project, the team includes scientists and educators from the University of Missouri, Washington State University, University of California-Davis, New Mexico State University, Colorado State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the USDA ARS unit in Beltsville, MD. Participants from TAMU include Dr. Noah Cohen, Dr. Loren Skow, Dr. Lawrence Falconer, Dr. Christopher Seabury, Dr. Scott Dindot, and Dr. Alan Dabney. The genomics program at TAMU is further supported by AgriLife Research.

The second grant worth $5 million is led by Dr. Jerry Taylor, Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, to study feed efficiency in cattle. With this grant, researchers will genotype 8,000 cattle and determine how genetic differences affect feed intake and efficiency. They will also study specific bacteria and microbes that reside in the cattle’s stomach that aid in food digestion.

“If we can identify and selectively breed the animals that have the best combination of genes for producing high-quality beef with the least amount of grain, their offspring could reduce environmental impacts and save producers millions of dollars,” says Taylor. “Limiting the amount of feed used to produce beef could open farmland for other important crops, such as corn for ethanol, which could decrease dependency on fossil fuels and foreign oil.”

Dr. Christopher Seabury, assistant professor in animal genomics at the TAMU CVM, and a key participant from TAMU in the feed efficiency project said, “This project undoubtedly has the potential for major scientific advances enabling more efficient and cost-effective cattle production. I’m very excited about the opportunities it will offer to the beef industry.”

The 75 billion dollar beef and dairy industry has a significant impact on the national economy and in particular contributes largely to the rural economy. The two grants by USDA-NIFA will provide tools for improvement in cattle health and production and increase profitability in the cattle industry.

CVM Distinguished Professor Receives Grant from Department of Defense

Dr. Stephen Safe, distinguished professor of toxicology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and the Institute for Biotechnology (IBT) at the Texas A&M Health Sciences Center along with Dr. Mandip Sachdeva, professor of pharmaceutical sciences with the Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy, recently received a grant from the Department of Defense (DOD) – Army Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) for their project entitled “The Role of Novel Substituted Diindolylmethane Analogues in the Treatment of Triple – Negative and ErbB2 – Positive Breast Cancer” which will be funded $1.4 million over four years.

Dr. Stephen Safe in LabThe BCRP was initiated to promote research focused on eliminating breast cancer and to challenge the scientific community to develop innovative approaches that will foster new directions and growth toward the battle against breast cancer.

According to the BCRP application, “The BCRP focuses its funding on innovative projects that have the potential to make a significant impact on breast cancer, particularly those involving multidisciplinary and/or multi-institutional collaborations and alliances. Under investigated avenues of research and novel applications of existing technologies are strongly encouraged.”

Under this grant Texas A&M University will serve as a mentoring institution to Florida A&M University because Florida A&M University is a predominantly black university and the BCPR is listed under the agreement with the DOD and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Minority Institutions (HBCU/MI) Partnership Training Award. This award will help build new collaborations with members of the chemistry department from Florida A&M University and the CVM as well as enhance current relationships. Dr. Robert Burghardt, professor at the CVM, and Dr. Weston Porter, associate professor at the CVM, are also part of the Texas A&M faculty mentoring team.

Safe currently has four grants which he utilizes for his research on development of novel mechanism-based drugs for treatment of breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Safe’s cancer research focuses on treatment for late stage cancers which are highly aggressive and can undergo metastasis where the cancer cells spread from their original location to other parts of the body. Through this research his research group has made promising strides in the fight against invasive and metastatic cancer due to the novel drugs that have been developed in his laboratory.

“I am very excited about this particular grant because it will allow us to expand on our current research on breast cancer, and this will involve training independent researchers at Florida A&M to collaborate in this research and to promote future independent research efforts on their own,” explains Safe. “This grant is also very beneficial because of the involvement of scientists with expertise in chemistry, pharmaceuticals, molecular and cell biology and this will facilitate development of clinically useful anticancer drugs.”

Ferro Studied AIV in Migratory Birds on Texas Gulf Coast

The Texas Gulf Coast provides a wonderful escape for migratory birds during the winter. Residents and hunters off of the Texas Gulf Coast enjoy the waterfowls’ annual visit, but people need to be aware of the impact waterfowl may have due to the viruses they carry. Dr. Pam Ferro, who received her Ph.D. in veterinary pathobiology from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) in August, spent five consecutive years studying avian influenza viruses (AIV) in hunter-harvested waterfowl in the wintering grounds off of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Dr. Pam FerroIn North America there are four major flyways: the Pacific, the Central, the Mississippi, and the Atlantic. Ferro chose to study the wintering grounds of the Central flyway because it is the most understudied out of the four. The Texas Gulf Coast was a great place to focus for Ferro, because approximately 90 percent of waterfowl that use the Central flyway winter in Texas.

The objective of Ferro’s study was to determine the prevalence of AIV on waterfowl wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast because waterfowl are considered the natural reservoir for AIV. These viruses can be transmitted to humans and poultry because migratory waterfowl intermingle with resident wild species and they are also in close contact with poultry operations and humans, primarily hunters. The infected migratory birds shed the virus through their feces. Infection with influenza virus in humans and chickens results mainly in a respiratory disease.

“The migratory nature of many waterfowl species and the persistence of influenza in these populations present a vehicle for dissemination of influenza viruses globally,” explained Ferro. “Understanding the migratory patterns of different waterfowl as well as identifying influenza virus subtypes within these populations is critical to our understanding of how influenza viruses persist in nature and evolve over time.”

“The reason for the study was to see what kind of viruses are found on the Texas Gulf Coast because this area has not been well studied,” said Ferro. “Throughout the study, we did not find any highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses and we isolated over 150 viruses of very different subtypes. Now we are interested in comparing viruses that we isolated on the Texas Gulf Coast to the viruses that were isolated in the breeding grounds up North to see if there are any similarities.”

“We can’t eliminate the virus from the waterfowl,” Ferro said. “However, by knowing more about what occurs in nature we can develop control measures so these viruses won’t be transmitted to humans or poultry. If we can narrow down certain viruses that are highly prevalent at certain times we can enact bio-containment strategies on farms and surrounding areas to prevent infection.”

Dr. Blanca LupianiFerro’s research was under the direction of Dr. Blanca Lupiani, associate professor in the department of veterinary pathobiology at the CVM. Lupiani thought Ferro’s research project was a success because of significance of the data obtained as well as the collaborative effort that was present throughout the entire project.

Ferro collaborated with students from different colleges at Texas A&M University and enlisted the help of Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists and technicians as well as local hunters to make her research efforts possible. Ferro and her team collected over 7,000 cloacal swab samples from approximately 33 different potential host species.

“This was a wonderful research project,” Lupiani said. “Pam brought a group of people together with such a variety of expertise to help understand a complex problem. Her interdisciplinary approach built great relationships which resulted in great findings.”

“This was an amazing experience,” said Ferro. “It was a big learning curve for me since my background is not in ecology. I was able to get out in the field, work with a wide variety of individuals, got the chance to educate people about AIV in waterfowl, and I had the opportunity to experiment in the lab.”

Ferro is currently working as a post-doctoral research associate at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Georgia.

This project was funded by the USDA and the Avian Influenza Coordinated Agricultural Projects (AICAP and AICAP 2).

Pet Owner Gets Questions Answered

Dr. George Lees, professor of Veterinary Internal Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University (CVM) and his team, along with Dr. Keith Murphy, former colleague at CVM, answered questions for a grieving pet owner as they discovered another form of hereditary nephropathy (HN), an inherited disorder that damages tiny blood vessels in the kidneys that help filter blood, in a different canine breed – the English Springer Spaniel.

Dr. George LeesIn 2007, after a 15-year discovery process, Lees and his team patented a genetic test to identify carriers of HN in English Cocker Spaniels. Their efforts and research lead to the eradication of this inherited kidney disease through selective breeding in English Cocker Spaniels.

In 2009, Katherine Perry, owner of two English Springer Spaniels – Ginger and Coco, was referred to Lees when her puppies showed signs of a kidney problem. Lees evaluated both dogs and he quickly determined that they did have a similar disease that would shortly take their lives.

“What I learned from the first discovery was that the end of the disease was so short,” explained Lees. “HN is similar to an avalanche because it starts off slow, but the end is so fast and devastating.”

The dogs died shortly after the initial visit with Lees. Lees asked for Perry’s permission to take their kidneys and DNA to conduct further research.

Perry allowed Lees and his team to do research on her dogs because she wanted her questions answered. She wanted to know why they died so young. Her dogs were less than a year old.

“I did get my answers,” said Perry. “Until this situation occurred, I never understood nor appreciated the detail and dedication involved in medical research. When I was first informed of the possibility of having the girls’ kidneys researched, I assumed that it was going to be a cold and calculated business agreement. Never did I imagine that this team would be so understanding, gentle, sincere, or compassionate. The needs of the girls were their priority. After the girls were gone, their focus was on finding out how this disease originated.”

“Initially we tested the dogs’ DNA for the abnormality that affects English Cocker Spaniels, “explains Lees. “But we found that the English Springer Spaniels did not have the same DNA abnormality as the English Cocker Spaniel, so we continued with our research. We finally discovered their specific mutation in about a year. Then we went to the dogs’ family to try to find a pattern of DNA abnormalities that was consistent with their inheritance.”

They found out that the disease is recessive. There are a lot of carriers, but few are affected. However, the results can be devastating for the affected dogs as there is no cure for them and their lives are severely shortened.

“The cause of the disease is a condition that is known as Alport syndrome in people, but it is usually called hereditary nephropathy or ‘HN’ in dogs,” said Lees. “In both people and dogs, this disease is caused by defects in the genes that encode type IV collagen, which is a protein that is an important structural component of the parts of the kidneys (called glomeruli) that filter the blood.”

Armed with information provided by Lees and his team about the genetics status of related dogs, the breeders of the English Springer Spaniels who were affected have been able to breed their dogs selectively so that no other HN cases have occurred in their English Springer Spaniels.

“I would highly recommend Dr. Lees and his team to anyone who has a sick pet,” said Perry. “Several months after the girls were put down, I received a package from the clinic with two hand painted clay forms of the girls’ actual paw prints. This thoughtful gesture touched my heart in a way words could not convey. Lees and his team are an exceptional group of individuals; very caring and understanding.”

Lees explained to Perry the importance of understanding the origin of the disease by conducting further research. Even though Perry was overwhelmed by the process, she understood that she needed to allow the research to continue so that it could benefit other dogs in the future.

“It is important to develop an understanding of genetics and to conduct selective breeding to eliminate the problem,” said Lees. “When a dog gets sick, it takes time to do an investigation and to characterize the disease. Many diseases remain an unsolved problem. We, at CVM, set ourselves apart because we have the expertise and are able to spend the extra time needed to pursue problems like this to the point of understanding their root cause. This permits us to build a better future than would otherwise be possible.”

“I realized that Ginger and Coco were brought into our lives for a purpose,” explains Perry. “At the time, I assumed it was because they were going to need a lot of extra tender loving care. I never dreamed my selfish search for answers would benefit other animals. I encourage anyone who has a pet with a terminal illness to find out what created the illness. By doing so you can prevent other animals from having to suffer.”