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Domestic animals’ genes a goldmine for medical research

19 October 2012

Leif Andersson, professor of functional genomics.

Leif Andersson is professor of functional genomics at the Department of medical biochemistry and microbiology and conducs research on the function of genes in animals and humans.

Leif Andersson has in the last few years presented discovery after discovery about the genetic cause of different domestic animals’ traits. Several of the findings have enabled interesting medical applications. With the five-year grant of SEK 31 million from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Leif Andersson and his research team will continue to unravel the functions of these genes in animals and humans.

‘It is of course fantastic news. Further investigating the genes’ functions and the mechanisms involved is costly, but now we are able to continue’, says Leif Andersson, professor of functional genomics at Uppsala University.

The discoveries made by Leif Andersson’s team are numerous, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues at other universities. The genetics of domestic animals are very useful for investigating the genetic background of different properties, since you can make use of the selection of genes that has been accomplished through breeding for certain characteristics.

Genetic research on domestic animals is being conducted in several places around the world, but Leif Andersson’s approach differs in that it tries to answer the more basic questions about their biolog. For instance, how the wild boar evolved into a pig, or why only certain Icelandic horses can perform pace. The latter study started as the hunt for the cause of summer eczema which affects Icelandic horses. The answer to that question was not found.

‘But by asking basic questions you often find that the answers allow for different interesting applications’, he says.

One example was when they, a few years ago, studied why pigs develop more muscles and less fat than the wild boar. They ended up being able to connect the trait with a certain gene, for the first time. This gene, ZBED6, was previously unknown, but the research team soon discovered that it was unique to the placental mammals, including us humans.

The group will now deepen their studies by disabling the ZBED6 gene in mice. By doing so they hope to clarify the function of the gene in more detail and find out which proteins the gene interacts with. Already they suspect it affects insulin production, nerve cells and the uterus.

‘ZBED6 is a so called transcription factor which means that it regulates many other genes by binding to DNA. Could it be that its development has been important or even necessary for the very successful evolution of mammals?’ says Leif Andersson.

In the same way they will continue with other genes that they have connected with specific functions, for instance the gene which is associated with melanoma in horses, or the gene that enables some horses to tölt and pace, like Icelandic horses. Interestingly enough, the latter gene affects race horses in a different way – it inhibits pacing and favours trotting.

‘That discovery has attracted a lot of interest, since it is directly applicable on race horse breeding.’

The evolutionary development of life on earth, and mammals in particular, really interest him and he notes that this curiosity has led him into new exciting areas. One example is the ZBED6 gene which originates from a parasitic so called ‘jumping’ gene, but ended up in the DNA of mammals about 200 million years ago. A few years back it would have been considered junk DNA.

‘But through one or several mutations it began doing something useful, which meant natural selection could ‘get a hold’ on this DNA sequence and affect its development. Now it seems to be vital for humans and other placental mammals.’

‘When we study the genes closer we often discover several functions, often of medical interest’, says Leif Andersson.