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Viewing genetics through a crystal ball: What does it hold for you?

Megan Rolf for Progressive Cattleman Published on 03 July 2017

At a time when prices for inputs are uncertain and markets waiver significantly, there is one incredibly important way to increase the profitability of any cattle enterprise – by using genetic improvement.

Expected progeny differences (EPDs) have been available for decades, and they are currently the best way to select for improved genetic merit for any traits that are evaluated. The inclusion of genomic information into these predictions has provided another avenue to increase the accuracy of selection for young animals. But what advancements in genetic improvement are on the horizon?

While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, there are three different technologies or areas of genetics that may impact the beef industry of the future. While trying to predict any future advances is fraught with the possibility of error, or even complete failure, it is worth looking ahead to what the future of genetics might hold for you.


Sequencing is a technology that is already being used in the beef industry, although few producers are actively sequencing their animals. Over time, sequencing can help improve genotyping products by generating more information on mutations in the cattle genome. In addition, this technology is being used to generate tools that will help producers improve fertility. For example, a project currently funded by the USDA is using sequence data paired with genotyping to identify mutations that cause early embryonic loss. In the future, producers, armed with this information, could manage their matings to reduce the number of carrier-to-carrier matings for the same mutation – increasing their pregnancy rates.

Genome editing

Another technology that could have a significant impact on the beef industry is genome editing. Genome editing techniques allow scientists to make precise changes to the genome that introduce beneficial changes. Think of genome editing as a set of very sharp, precise scissors with a guidance system. If you provide these scissors with a location, they can go to a specific place in the DNA, make a cut and induce mechanisms that will make a desired change in the DNA. This technology has already been used to create polled dairy cattle by removing 10 DNA bases from their DNA sequence and inserting 212 bases from the Angus genome. It has also been used to generate heavier muscled Nelore cattle by creating a mutation in myostatin.

The possibilities of genome editing are almost endless and include eradication of known genetic abnormalities in the process of cloning popular sires, improving disease resistance without the use of antibiotics and accelerating genetic progress in economically relevant traits. The largest potential barrier for this technology are proposed FDA regulations that would classify each edit to the genome as a drug, which would effectively eliminate its use in the U.S.


Epigenetic changes are essentially inherited changes to gene regulation. They’re like tags in the genome that can impact the amount, more or less, of a particular protein, but they’re not actual changes in the DNA sequence (such as those we select for with EPDs). Epigenetics is not completely understood in mammals like cattle. However, it offers exciting prospects for the beef industry because it could provide a way to use management to alter gene expression in a favorable way for a specific operation.

For example, there are some genes in the genome that are imprinted – they are only expressed if inherited from a specific parent. Imprinted genes are either maternally or paternally expressed, meaning if they inherit a maternally expressed gene from their sire, they can still pass it on, but the gene is never expressed. A good example is callipyge sheep, which only express the callipyge mutation if they inherit the mutation from their sire. Imprinting can “hide” mutations, meaning they would not be expressed, which may be particularly important if the mutation is lethal or very deleterious.

Epigenetics is also being explored as a way to “program” animals for a particular environment or management condition. For example, nutrient restriction of a gestating cow has been shown to have long-term impacts on the performance of her progeny (this is called fetal programming). However, in order to be considered an epigenetic change, those changes have to be sustained for longer than three generations, all of which are present when the cow is gestating (the cow, her calf and the eggs that become her grandprogeny).

The question of whether we can use epigenetic changes to induce favorable performance outcomes in later generations has not yet been definitively answered, but if these performance changes are truly due to epigenetic modifications, it could provide an invaluable tool for producers interested in generating cattle adapted to their environmental conditions.

Genetics is a dynamic field of study that has already produced many improvements for cattle producers. And while we don’t have a “crystal ball” to see the details of improvements to come, we can rest assured that genetic improvements are a technology that’s here to stay. Being aware of new and novel technological advances, which might affect your herd’s future, will ensure that you’re ready for what’s to come.  end mark

Megan Rolf
  • Megan Rolf

  • Beef Geneticist
  • Kansas State University
  • Email Megan Rolf

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