'Imagination is the limit:' U of S research to catch cattle diseases early

Gregg Adams can imagine saving a herd of cattle from an outbreak of a deadly disease in the span of hours.

The University of Saskatchewan professor is heading a multidisciplinary research project that could bring high-tech solutions to age-old problems of disease facing cattle and bison herds.

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"Our new genomic and imaging technology allows us to look at little molecules like DNA and microbes ... opening a window that we never could see through before," Adams said.

"It's going to open up a lot of possibilities that we can't imagine at the moment."

The project, called "Integrated omics for sustainable animal agriculture and environmental stewardship (IntegrOmes)," collects big sets of data like genetic information from animals and helps connect it with physical traits, he said.

That means a farmer can soon pluck a hair from an animal, feed it into a hand-held device, and get a detailed assessment of the animal's genetic traits that was once unimaginable. With the information, farmers can spot resistances to maladies like bovine respiratory disease — one of cattle's biggest killers, Adams said.

From there, farmers can select animals for breeding with inherent disease resistance.

Another example Adams uses is tackling pregnancy loss in a herd. Previously, taking samples to a lab for a post mortem could take a week to 10 days when intervention is most needed, he said. The new tools would allow that action to be taken before an outbreak occurs.

The technology has the potential to be used for bison conservation efforts as more First Nations reintroduce the animals to their lands, he noted. Researchers can use the data to find why some bison carry an endemic disease, while others don't. Comparing the groups can create a screening tool to flag animals with resistances.

DNA sequencers used to be the size of football fields, but now they can be carried in the palm of a researcher's hand, Adams noted. He said they even have the potential to address problems like mad cow disease, assuming the tools are available at the time.

"One's imagination is the limit," Adams said. "It's kind of overwhelming at first. You go, 'Wow, look at the possibilities.' "

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