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ISU’s Rothschild ends 20-year appointment as pig genome coordinator

Posted Oct. 18, 2013

In 1993, the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture decided it would support cooperation and collaboration among genome scientists working with livestock and set up a competitive request to select coordinators for swine, cattle, sheep and horses.

Iowa State University animal scientist Max Rothschild, C.F. Curtiss distinguished professor in agriculture, was selected to be the swine coordinator, which was funded under the National Research Support Program and included support from Iowa State. Every five years he was reappointed as the U.S. Pig Genome Coordination Program was renewed. He recently stepped down after 20 years as pig genome coordinator.

The program was renewed in September. Chris Tuggle, ISU animal science professor, and Cathy Ernst, Michigan State University animal science professor, will serve as the new co-coordinators.

Rothschild recently discussed his two decades of work as the genome coordinator.

Q: Describe the progress over your tenure in the program?
A: When we started, we had a map of only 100 genes located, then we went through a phase where we helped develop mapping reagents, then we had maps of 1,000 and later 1,500 markers. Now we have sequenced the pig genome, so we have all 20-25,000 genes mapped. So we’ve come an incredibly long way.

But the sequencing is only the first step; it’s a draft sequence. And so while that’s very useful, it starts to allow us to get at the underlying information of the traits we’re interested in — traits like growth rate, meat quality, disease resistance and reproduction. Those are traits that help the producer. Traits like meat quality, also affect the consumer.

Q: Why did you get involved in the program?
A: I saw that we were going to need some molecular tools if we were going to understand genetic improvement in the pig. The industry was crying out for that. So I got myself interested with some gene discovery work, my work on estrogen receptors and some work on meat quality genes, but I just saw the need and when the opportunity came I thought I could help other researchers and producers, so I decided to help coordinate.

Q: What went into your thinking to step down?
A: I decided after 20 years the community had accomplished a great deal and it was time to try something different. I thought a little new blood would serve it well. I’m still going to be active, but in the background.

I feel honored that I was a part of the mapping and sequencing of the pig genome, and feel honored that Iowa State was part of it. The pig genome research community accomplished an enormous amount over those 20 years.

Q: What went into your coordinator position?
A: The coordinator title implied I was in charge, but I was never in charge. I thought of myself as a facilitator.

I developed a discussion group called Angenmap, which has about 2,500 people who now communicate on the listserv. I helped develop a newsletter called Pig Genome Update, which I’ve been publishing, first six times a year and more recently four a year, which researchers used to keep up.

I helped facilitate sharing of reagents and mapping information. For a while, there were 40 labs doing swine genomics worldwide, of which seven or eight were in the U.S.; and the idea would be that if each lab ordered some reagents to do genetic mapping it would cost a lot, but if I ordered one set and distributed them all around the world everybody could be doing the same thing with their own samples, compare results, you get a much bigger data pool.

I helped organize meetings, helped pay for, on some occasions, junior scientists to travel to meetings, and I just tried to get basically everybody to work together. Also, I had outreach to the European group called PigMap and to swine genome researchers all over Asia.

Q: The technology must have changed quite a bit in those 20 years.
A: We went from having difficulty genotyping one gene at a time to now we have what’s called a SNP chip that genotypes for 60,000 genes at once. We had a map of 100 markers, we now know where approximately 25,000 genes are.

The cost was about $30 million to sequence the pig, but now you can sequence one pig for about $5,000, and that’s likely to be $1,000 before long.

Q: Is there anything new you plan to do?
A: I am co-leader for the new Global Food Security Consortium, looking globally at food production. I hope we can address issues that affect producing more animal source foods for the estimated 9.6 billion people who will inhabit the world in 2050.

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