Scientists have mapped the genome of the domestic pig in a project that could enhance the animal’s use for meat production and the testing of drugs for human disease.
A study published in science journal Nature identified genes that could be linked with illnesses suffered by farmed pigs, providing a reference tool for selective breeding to increase their resistance to disease.
"This new analysis helps us understand the genetic mechanisms that enable high-quality pork production, feed efficiency and resistance to disease," said Sonny Ramaswany, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
"This knowledge can ultimately help producers breed high-quality swine, lower production costs and improve sustainability."
Alan Archibald at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in Scotland, who worked on the project with collaborators in the Netherlands and the U.S., said the new genome sequence was the first good draft.
Archibald said while making sense of the analysis would take time, the benefits of genome sequencing flow through more quickly in agriculture than, for instance, human medicine, "because we can use selective breeding."
Identifying genes responsible for diseases that are also seen in people could see pigs used more extensively for drug testing.
For instance, the inherited illness known as porcine stress syndrome, which can cause sudden death in pigs, has similarities to the human condition malignant hyperthermia, which causes a fast and dangerous rise in body temperature in some people under general anaesthetic.
Some of the genetic faults that pigs share with humans can be linked with conditions as varied as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, dyslexia, obesity and Parkinson’s disease, the researchers said.
"In total, we found 112 positions where the porcine protein has the same amino acid that is implicated in a disease in humans," they said.
— Chris Wickham is a science correspondent for Reuters in London.