Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future. When it comes to swine genetics, world-renowned genetics leader Max Rothschild says he’s optimistic about what lies ahead.
For this recently retired distinguished professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, the future of animal breeding and genetics is more promising than ever with sensors, cameras and evolving technology to help capture more data in an effort to make even greater leaps in research.
“Someone once told me the pig is plastic and by plastic, they meant very shapeable,” Rothschild says. “From a genetic standpoint, you just have to look from 1980 when I started at Iowa State to 2020 when I retired for proof of how the pig has completely changed. It’s half as fat, grows to much heavier weights and does all of that in two to three months less time. So if you think about it, that’s incredible.”
He says those enormous changes came about largely because of genetics, and more recently, because of molecular genetics.
A Lifetime of Discovery
When Rothschild began his research in swine genetics in the 1970s, people were beginning to realize the value of using a pig as a model for human disease. Cholesterol inheritance became a hot topic as many people battled too much cholesterol in their diets. To this day, the pig continues to serve as an outstanding model for human health, he says.
After getting his feet wet, he began working more closely with a quantitative genetics giant, Lauren Christian, looking at the role of feet and leg structure in pigs. The questions they worked to answer back then still remain important in the industry today, especially as more sows are moved into group housing: If we change the environment we raise pigs in, do we need to change the livestock that we are raising to maintain high animal welfare?
In the latter part of his career, Rothschild moved out of quantitative genetics and into molecular genetics. From discovering estrogen receptors and their enormous effect on litter size to finding MC4R and its effect on feed intake and leanness, he believes some of the gene discoveries he and his students made created great opportunities for the swine industry.
“These discoveries essentially led the way in finding genes that breeding companies and producers could use to select for pigs with better characteristics,” he says. “It opened up that black box, so to speak, that continues to baffle people about genetics.”
Resistance and Disease
Disease resistance is one of the hottest area of genetics research today, Rothschild says. With all of the disease challenges and foreign animal disease threats plaguing pork producers, great effort is being placed into this area to better understand disease models.
“We're not always going to find resistance, but we're going to better understand the disease model through these projects,” he says. “This is going to allow for better vaccinations.”
He’s also excited about the work taking place in the area of new traits and admits he’s disappointed he’s “missing” this artificial intelligence/sensor era. Technology is allowing researchers to gather information they’ve never had access to before. This could lead to the discovery of new traits that could help producers be more profitable.
Rothschild has been working in Uganda, where pork production has been doubling almost every year.
Genetics of the Future
Down the road, he hopes somebody will discover the genes responsible for African swine fever (ASF) resistance. He believes genes that affect feed intake will play an increasingly important role in breeding programs as will genes that are responsible for pig behavior.
“We’ve got a lot to learn about eating behavior. We know that the gene that we discovered at Iowa State -MC4R - is associated with feed intake, it's a receptor in the brain and it drives the pig to eat or not eat,” he explains. “But there are other genes that affect behavioral traits, aggression, number of times to the feeder and sexual interest. These are all things that we might be able to measure and reflect upon using sensors and cameras, with bright people looking at the data and developing artificial intelligence tools.”
As the pork industry expands around the globe, there will be an even greater need for swine genetics that will flourish in tougher environments like Africa, he adds. He’s been working in Uganda, for example, where pork production has been doubling almost every year.
“When a student says to me, ‘So much has been done, there won't be anything for me to do in the future,” I laugh,” Rothschild says. “Every day we're redefining what that pig looks like. We can mold it to our interest as long as we remember animal welfare.”
A Word to Producers
COVID-19 has reminded the country that science is good, he says. Over the years, he’s listened to a lot of people tell him that they don’t believe in science.
“Everything we have in life is due to science, starting with your cell phone you carry everywhere,” he says. “We need people to want to wade into the science and understand it better. Whether it’s on the value of vaccinations or the use of molecular genetics, science is important everywhere.”
Although most farmers and producers buy their breeding stock from breeding companies or conglomerates of purebred producers, Rothschild encourages them to ask questions.
“When we go to buy a car, we generally ask questions about miles per gallon, speed, safety – those things kind of translate the same things in the ag industry,” he says. “We need to know how long is it going to take to get to market? What's the meat quality going to be? How environmentally and welfare sound are these pigs?”
If he could offer up a word of advice, Rothschild encourages the industry to keep alert when it comes to animal activists and people who have strong beliefs that could have negative bearings on animal agriculture. He says there are three key areas where genetics could have impact: animal welfare, climate change and non-traditional meat.
Continuing reading about Rothschild's views on animal activists and find out where's he been spending his time since retirement.