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Swine Genome Offers Insights for Agriculture, Medicine

Piglets and mother (Keith Weller, ARS/USDA)

(Keith Weller, Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

An analysis of the pig genome by an international consortium highlights genetic mechanisms that can improve breeding practices and show similarities with humans for development of drugs. The findings by the International Swine Genome Sequence Consortium appear online in the journals Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers from North America, Europe, and Asia compared the genome of a common farm pig, Sus scrofa domesticus, with those of wild boars from Europe and Asia. The team also compared the pig genome with that of other species, notably the human, mouse, dog, horse, and cow. The research uncovered new details of domestic pig evolution after its ancestors, which most resembled today’s wild boars, first emerged in Southeast Asia and gradually migrated across Asia and Europe.

The findings show many genetic differences between the Asian and European wild boars, which separated from one another about one million years ago, and which are important in breeding efforts. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, one of the funders of the consortium, says “This new swine genome sequence analysis helps us understand the genetic mechanisms that enable high-quality pork production, feed efficiency, and resistance to disease.” Ramaswamy adds, “This knowledge can ultimately help producers breed high-quality swine, lower production costs, and improve sustainability.”

The results underscore the potential of porcine models for studies of human diseases. The researchers found through genomic sequencing many gene variations in swine that appear in human diseases. The analysis shows protein aberrations shared with humans are associated with obesity, diabetes, dyslexia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

At Uppsala University in Sweden, researchers used a computer analysis and detailed sequencing to map the retrovirus part of the pig genome. The Uppsala researchers found similarities to human retroviruses, such as HIV, including a chance for the virus to be passed on to the host organism’s offspring. As a result, over millions of years, retroviruses remotely related to HIV have colonized vertebrates, leaving traces in their genetic make-up as endogenous retroviruses. Unlike humans, however, some endogenous retroviruses in pigs can reproduce and infect, which might pose a risk when transplanting pig organs to humans.

The research team found other key differences with humans and othe animals, notably in senses of taste and smell. The findings show pigs have more unique olfactory (sense of smell) genes than humans, mice, or dogs, but also an impaired sense of taste, at least compared to humans.

“Pigs have a high tolerance for eating things that have a lot of salt or that we would find repulsive by taste,” says Lawrence Schook, vice president for resesarch at University of Illinois, and a principal investigator on the study. The analysis shows pigs have significantly fewer bitter taste receptor genes than humans, as well as different genes for perceptions of specific tastes.

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