Genetics research wins big at Kudos Awards

Tuesday 19 December 2023

A collaboration between Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) and Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University was recognised at the recent 2023 Kudos Awards, where the Variant Discovery Team won the Hill Lab Primary Industries Award.

Left to right: Dr Thomas Lopdell, Dr Laura Duntsch, Professor Matt Littlejohn, Dr Swati Jivanji and Dr Chad Harland.

Last updated: Tuesday 19 December 2023

The Kudos Awards honour educators, scientists and innovators who have embraced technology as a catalyst for progress. The Variant Discovery Team won the award with their groundbreaking research that offers farmers innovative genetic solutions for healthier, high-performance animals, reshaping both genetics research and the future of farming.

The team is comprised of Massey’s Professor Matt Littlejohn, Professor Keren Dittmer, Professor Dorian Garrick and PhD student Edwardo Reynolds. LIC staff on the team include Dr Swati Jivanji, Dr Laura Duntsch, Dr Thomas Lopdell, Dr Steve Davis, Dr Chad Harland and Renae Ellison.

Research Lead, Professor Littlejohn, says that the main purpose of the team’s data generation activities is to help farmers choose and confirm parentage. It is also a crucial asset for impactful research.

“A key focus area is identifying genetic variants responsible for diseases. Over the past few years, our team has discovered a lot of these effects, with over 20 variants that cause previously unknown recessive disorders. These variants exhibit diverse effects, impacting animals at various life stages. Some variants lead to embryo loss, resulting in failed pregnancies, while others trigger later-onset issues like neurodegeneration. Notably, our research linked one of these variants to a human disorder known as Charcot–Marie–Tooth Disease, attracting interest from international groups engaged in human disease research.”

Professor Littlejohn says their research enables the development of diagnostics for these variants.

“This information, provided free of charge through LIC’s parentage testing service to farmers, empowers them to make informed decisions, fostering the breeding of the healthiest and highest-performing animals for the next generation. To date, our earliest discoveries have led to the genotyping of over 1.5 million animals within the national herd, showcasing the widespread application of genetic data to animal breeding.”

Professor Littlejohn says the team's strength was having skills and resources that span both industry and academic environments.

“The industry datasets, resources and know-how contributed by LIC, in conjunction with the skills and method developments provided by Massey staff and students empowered the discoveries. Funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour programme also allowed us to take a more detailed look than is usually possible in purely industry-sponsored projects and enabled us to understand some of the underpinning biology of the disorders. Ultimately, it is nice to see the discoveries translated, with New Zealand farmers now able to benefit from the discoveries through LIC’s breeding programme.”

Massey PhD graduate Dr Swati Jivanji, who completed her doctoral research with the Al Rae Centre, was also up for a Kudos Award. She was nominated in the Hamilton City Council Emerging Scientist category for her work to unlock the genetic basis of the coat patterning traits characteristic of different cattle breeds.

Watch the Variant Discovery Team YouTube interview with Professor Littlejohn here.

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