Innovis completes UK’s first sheep genomics programme

A project to develop genomic breeding values (GBVs) for carcass composition and eating quality traits is the first to be completed in the UK, according to the company behind the initiative.

The £1.3m joint venture between sheep breeding technology company Innovis, Dalehead Foods, the University of Aberystwyth, Roslin Institute, SRUC and Waitrose, was supported by the government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

During the four-year programme, detailed performance records on more than 60 traits were recorded on up to 8,000 animals within the Innovis’ nucleus flocks of Aberdale, Aberfield and Abermax breeds.

See also: How genomics could be of value to sheep breeders

This included measurements of carcass and eating quality traits using whole body CT scanning, taste panels and chemical analysis of the meat.

Tissue samples have been stored from all the animals recorded in the project allowing DNA to be extracted and analysed.

Innovis’ Dewi Jones explained: “The genomic information is giving us another clue to an animal’s breeding value but it has the advantage of being available on all animals that we can collect DNA from – so young lambs, ewes and rams and animals that have died or been slaughtered.

 “The project has demonstrated that this is likely to be very useful for traits such as lean percentage in the carcass, the proportion of meat in the more valuable cuts and tenderness of the meat.”

The carcass composition and eating quality traits will be used primarily to develop the Abervale sheep breed which is retailed through Waitrose.

Greater accuracy

The same GBVs will also be used to create greater accuracy in trait selection along with Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) across Innovis’s Abermax breed.

Mr Jones added that, as more data was gathered, GBVs could be introduced for important health and maternal traits which could only be measured in a ram’s daughters.

“Alongside developing GBVs for important traits the project also allowed us to answer some interesting and important questions about genetic differences that exist within our populations.

“We found that our flock is rich in variation and also confirmed that most of the important traits we are interested in are influenced by hundreds of different genes, each with a small effect,” Mr Jones said.

“This tells us that there are unlikely to be any ‘quick’ fixes in terms of identifying single genes with a large effect on performance, but that the careful use of EBVs and GBVs will allow us to continue making genetic improvements in commercially important traits for many generations to come,” he said.