It’s an agricultural service with so much promise, barely in its infancy and yet already changing everything to do with performance-enhancing livestock research.

Genomics is the still-new ability of scientists to dig deep into the genetic code of life, which now includes the genetic codes of most domestic livestock.
 
Having deciphered these gene sequences, the scientists can now predict with a high degree of certainty an animal’s potential – be it in producing meat or milk at a future date, or passing on desirable traits to its offspring.
 
At TEC Edmonton's TEC Centre, on the fourth floor of Enterprise Square in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is the new genomics analysis lab Delta Genomics.
 
Delta Genomics is the not-for-profit and much-awaited service arm of Livestock Gentec, Canada’s leading research centre created and supported by Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA). TEC Edmonton's Business Development group assists Delta Genomics on business matters. 
 
As a crucial component in the on-going improvement of Canadian livestock, Delta Genomics received $3.5 million from the federal Western Economic Diversification program to invest in some of world’s most advanced genomics equipment. The funds will assist the first three years of operation, then Delta Genomics will be self-sustaining.
 
Newly opened and boasting nine technicians, one supervisor and four state-of-the-art DNA analysis and decoding machines, Delta Genomics is Canada’s most advanced animal genomics laboratory.
 
“We have the expertise,” says Delta Genomics manager Colin Coros. “We are the only livestock lab in Canada with the ability to test for a single marker, for millions of markers or to decipher an entire genome.
 
“Genomics can now link almost any commercial livestock trait to its genetics,” says Colin. “The trick now is identifying and tracking traits most economically relevant to the producer. We can analyze the genetic codes of a bull and a cow to accurately predict the offspring’s feed efficiency, health, disease resistance, weaning weight, growth rate and fertility. For the beef industry, we should soon be able to predict meat tenderness and marbling.”
 
“Our job at Delta Genomics,” says Colin, “is to get these technologies out there, to assist the livestock industry in taking advantage of this knowledge.”
 
Like most products or services resulting from technological breakthroughs, the cost of gene sequencing has dropped dramatically since the $50 million it took to sequence the first cow genome.
 
“It now costs $20,000 for a full genomic sequence,” says Colin. “But once we know the 100 genes out of the three billion that we are looking for, we can target specific gene traits for $20.”
 
The dairy industry embraced genetic testing in 2008, and has already saved an estimated $180 million. Genetic testing tells the dairy farmer which calves, for instance, will produce the most offspring. “The farmer doesn’t have to wait until the calf is an adult.”
 
The same goes for bulls. "Before genetic testing, it would take 5 to 10 years to find out if a bull was passing on desirable traits," says Colin. "Now all major breeding bulls are genetically tested."
 
Genomic testing makes what’s called “Estimated Breeding Values” far more accurate in a much shorter period of time. Before genetic testing, the accuracy of Estimated Breeding Value for a young bull was 30% to 40%. With genomic testing, the accuracy values can get as high as70% to 80%.”
 
Slowly the beef industry is moving to genetic testing. “The poultry, dairy, and pork industries have embraced this technology” says Colin. “For beef, we need to demonstrate $60 of value for that $20 test before we get wide-scale adoption. Part of what we are doing is identifying the tests that will best add value for the meat industries.”

Delta Genomics now services breeding associations and genetic companies. Within a few years, it will be in a position to handle individual farmers’ requests. In its first year, Delta Genomics expects to run 10,000 actual genomic tests on a per animal basis, with a goal of reaching 100,000 tests a year.
 
One of its first major projects will be  the gene sequencing of 300 key breeding cattle from different breeds. “It’s ground-breaking work,” says Colin. “We need the genomic sequence of specific breeds to add more value to the genomic testing of cattle from that breed.
 
Other projects include genomic parentage testing – where cows are bred in multi-sire pastures;  and the creation of a bio-bank, a collection of animal sample genomics as tools to develop new, improved tests.
 
“We’re still in grade school with all this stuff,” says Colin, “or maybe junior high. But in 10 years most Canadian livestock will be genetically tested.”
 
For more information, please visit Delta Genomics or Livestock Gentec.