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Animal Science - Recent Progress and Future Challenges

07 June 2010

The goal of animal science remains efficient animal production according to Professor John Oldham, reports editor, Jackie Linden, for TheCattleSite.

Professor John Oldham of Scottish Agricultural Colleges in Edinburgh was invited to give the Hammond Lecture by the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) at its annual meeting in Belfast this year. He discussed the developments and understanding brought by previous generations of animal scientists, including Sir John Hammond, in whose memory the opening lecture of the BSAS is dedicated, and how these studies remain just as important today to feed a growing world population at a time of climate change.

Animal science spans a broad compass, Professor Oldham said. It tends to be considered as a study of animals (nature, function, productivity etc) that are under the management of Man in some way. This differentiates it from zoology, excludes wildlife and provides boundaries with at last some aspects of veterinary and biomedical sciences that can be rather indistinct. It covers both the understanding of animals as biological systems and the role of animals as components of broader systems.

"By being allied to animals that are under management, I take it as implicit that any consideration of progress in animal science needs to include not only progress in intellectual understanding but also progress in the utility of that understanding in practice. This does not deny the value of animals to animal science to inform broader biological understanding," said Professor Oldham.

There has been considerable scientific effort and increases in understanding, both on animals themselves and on their roles in systems, although rather more in the former than in the latter, he explained. Equally, there are future challenges both at the level of the animal as a phenotype and for animals in systems of management, In each case, the great challenge is not simply to understand the behaviour – in the broadest sense – of the animal or system, but also to predict it.

'Recent' is a word that is open to some interpretation. The rate at which some new techniques cna help to generate data in research can make it appear that rates of progress are accelerating. 'Recent' progress in such areas might be considered to span small numbers of years. But a broader perspective is needed to recognise some of the major areas of progress.

Progress in any science is driven by a mixture of imagination to generate the ideas that are worth pursuing, and the acquisition of appropriate techniques to allow those ideas to be tested. Sir John Hammond was a fount of ideas on reproduction, growth and development in the inter-war years and through the 1950s. His insights and techniques led the way in practical improvements in reproduction and his concepts of growth and development have generally stood the tests of time. Like Hammond's waves of growth, progress in animal science has been influenced by waves of technical development. Professor Oldham cited the examples of the advent of chromatographic techniques in the early post-war years allowed access to rapid analytical methods that underpinned progress in nutrition and physiology especially. Isotropic tracing techniques gave access to more quantitative understanding of metabolism as well as facilitating analysis. More recently, molecular techniques have opened avenues to understanding that were previously closed. And advance in computational and statistical techniques have not only supported the rapid delivery of thoer methods but have also allowed the realisation of ideas that, in some areas – especially genetics – were formed a significant time ago but were inaccessible for want of computational power.

Progress in genetics has helped to develop animals whose rates of productivity are dramatically increased although sometimes with negative associated consequences – which are now being corrected by adjustments to selection approaches, Professor Oldham said. The promise of molecular approaches to replace more conventional quantitative methods has not yet been fully realised, although the prospects of using genome-wide selection are considerable. Understanding of nutrition and nutritional biochemistry has yielded rationing schemes that work tolerably well and allow some control over the qualities of products that animals produce. Our understanding of reproductive processes has grown substantially, but too often the application application of new knowledge has been in the 'catch-up' mode, aiming to correct problems introduced by other 'advances'. Research on pregnancy and lactation for all mammalian species, including our own, has. though, been considerably advanced through the animal sciences. Our understanding of the processes of disease have been enabled through the animal as well as the veterinary and meical sciences, and increasingly, methods of control can be expected to include broad-based approaches that will call on the products of a range of animal sciences. The welfare of animals, as sentient beings, is better appreciated and open to assessment and improvement. But the prediction of phenotypic expression – what an animal will actually do given a knowledge of its genotype and its environment – is still as aspiration rather than a reality.

Professor Oldham said that, on broader knowledge fronts, the impacts of animals on their environment are better understood now than they were. Management of waste to reduce pollution or or grazing to achieve biodiversity goals is more possible. Animals also influence the social or operating environments. For example, systems of animal management can be important fro social cohesion and are important sources of work power or equity.

The impacts of animals on the environment are a source of much current concern, though, he said. Some of this relates to issues around climate change, others to the management of pollution or of managing biodiversity. Yet other concerns are to do with perceived negative contributions of animal products to the healthiness of the human diet, At the same time, the growing size of the human population and its ability to afford moe animal products in the global diet has increased, and it likely to continue to increase, the global demands for animals and their products.

This is the big driver that creates the grand challenges for animal sciences to address, Professor Oldham emphasised. The need is to produce animal products in appropriate abundance that are beneficial (or at worst, not detrimental) to the healthiness of our diets, that are produced with minimal waste, (by efficient use of resources and minimisation of losses through disease and reproductive failure especially), no negative impacts on, and preferably benefits to, the environment and in socially acceptable ways.

He said: "To achieve these results, if such is possible, I would expect to see the next stages of progress in the animal sciences being more integrative and predictive. Synthesis of understanding to enable the prediction of functional behaviour of animals as systems and animals in systems (and the behaviour of those systems) as well as continuing lines of discovery to enable this to happen should be to the fore."

A sharp eye on the outcome, and not simply the understanding, is merited. Sir John Hammond was an outstanding scientist – but his goal as science to enable efficient animal production, and we still need that, Professor Oldham concluded.

June 2010


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