Ontario Beef Magazine

December 2017

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Guelph Researcher Using Genomics to Accelerate Genetic Improvement in Beef Cattle

By Lilian Schaer for the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation

Beef geneticist Angela Cánovas has made a splash in the short time she’s been at the University of Guelph. Since joining the Department of Animal Biosciences in June 2015 as an Assistant Professor of Beef Cattle and Small Ruminant Genomics, she has established a large research  lab where she is leading several research projects and overseeing a team of over 15 graduate students and researchers.

And she just recently won the CSAS Young Scientist Award, awarded annually by the Canadian Society of Animal Science to a young researcher who has demonstrated excellence in animal or poultry science.

Cánovas hails from Spain where she completed an undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering and graduate degrees in animal genetics. In 2012, a prestigious Fulbright Excellence Postdoctoral scholarship took her to University of California-Davis where she specialized in genomics and bioinformatics to improve economically important traits in beef cattle like fertility, feed efficiency, health, meat quality and carcass traits. 

She had never been to Canada when she felt compelled to apply for a position at the University of Guelph, but she’s excited about the possibilities she’s discovered so far.

“I’ve been here for two years and the opportunities that Canada and Guelph bring are amazing,” she says, adding that she learned a lot about Canadian beef through the Beef Cattle Research Council mentorship program for beef researchers. “The collaboration with government, industry, producers and breed associations is beyond expectations.”

Cánovas has several research projects underway covering various aspects of beef genetics and genomics associated with feed efficiency and methane emission, fertility and reproduction, meat quality and tenderness, and disease resistance.

For example, her team is trying to identify markers in the genome that are associated with animals that are more efficient at converting feed. Cánovas is particularly interested in the interaction between the animal and its microbiome and how this influences efficient nutrient absorption. Preliminary results of this work, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), are expected in about a year.

And one of her projects looking at specific parameters to select markers related to fertility and reproduction is particularly promising. 

“We are identifying the regions in the genome that have some kind of distortion that affects fertility and reproduction,” she explains. “We have developed software and algorithms that allow us to analyze large amounts of data; it’s an advanced statistical tool that hasn’t been seen before.”

Initial results will be presented at the World Congress of Genetics in February. The analysis is now being repeated across specific beef breeds to identify any commonalities, and Cánovas is optimistic that the road to commercialization would be relatively quick if her initial results are validated. The project is funded by Beef Farmers of Ontario, Semex, American Angus Association, Canadian Dairy Network and BIO.

Together with researchers in the U.S and Australia, her team is also working on finding markers and genes associated with earlier puberty in beef animals, which would make animals more productive.

“The lack of consistency of meat tenderness is one of the reasons why beef consumption is dropping off,” she believes. “The industry has been trying for many years but has not been very successful in identifying genetic markers to select animals for tenderness.”

That’s something she hopes to change with a project that involves matching markers related to tenderness with functional information such as metabolic pathways that are associated with marbling and tenderness. The work is also measuring any potential impacts from environment and management. Funding is provided by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, BIO, Alberta Innovates, OMAFRA, Delta Genomics, and VG Meats.

To help with information sharing, Cánovas is creating a webinar series for producers as well as organizing field days and workshops, and producing videos across Canada that focus on different topics that can be influenced by genetics. This initiative is funded by the OMAFRA-KTT program and BIO.

“We need to disseminate the results of our genetic research so we can show the importance of collecting data on-farm and doing better genetic selection,” she explains. “My focus is on applicable research and I’m always listening to the needs of the industry.”

Cánovas is the scientific advisor to the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, an organization she met through the beef industry mentorship program, and is also a member of the BIO Board of Directors.

This article is part of a series of news stories on Ontario beef research prepared by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation for Ontario Beef.

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