The Texas A&M Aggies and the University of Missouri Tigers will be rivals on the football field in Columbia on Saturday, but off the field, researchers at both universities are working together to fight Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC).
“Yes, he definitely brought his ‘Aggie-ness’ to Missouri,” laughs Texas A&M Professor James Womack of his long-time friend and colleague, University of Missouri Professor Jerry Taylor, a former Texas A&M faculty member. The two professors are part of a larger effort to fight Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC), a problem in the cattle industry that can lead to animal suffering and significant economic losses.
BRDC is a respiratory disease in cattle much like a cold or flu in humans, says Womack, a Distinguished Professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology who studies human and animal genetics at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “BRDC is considered the biggest health challenge to productivity in beef and dairy cattle,” he explains. “It used to be called shipping fever and because it occurred often when mixing cattle from different locations and putting them in close quarters. It spreads like a cold or flu. It’s a complex disease caused by multiple different species of bacteria and viruses. Symptoms include runny nose and difficulty breathing.”
The U.S. cattle industry sees annual losses of more than $690 million as a result of BRDC, according to the CVM. Cattle suffering from the disease may go for months with very limited eating and lose weight, Womack says, adding, “That’s a problem especially with beef cattle. They can be treated with antibiotics, but usually by then, profits are lost.”
But thanks to a $9.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers are able to study prevention and treatment methods to fight BRDC.
Womack leads the research team, which includes Taylor, a Distinguished Professor of Animal Science and Genetics at Missouri’s Animal Science Research Center, along with researchers from several other universities and the USDA, known collectively as the Bovine Respiratory Disease Consortium.
In an effort to prevent the disease, the group is endeavoring to find the gene for resistance, says Womack. “We have known for some time that not all animals get the disease and there appears to be a genetic basis for the resistance. We now have the tools to identify the genes that are responsible for resistance and we can use them as DNA markers for selection for a more resistant breeding stock.”
In addition to preventing the disease, the knowledge gained in the research can also help in treatment. “Once you know the gene that is responsible, that gives you information about the mechanism − how the cattle deal with the pathogens − and that has the potential to lead to better therapeutics,” Womack notes.
The researchers are analyzing the DNA of more than 6,000 cattle located around the country and will develop selective breeding programs based on their findings.
Womack says he’s happy to partner with Taylor, who spent nearly 20 years as a faculty member in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M. “We’ve had a long-standing working relationship with him,” he notes. “The University of Missouri’s department is very strong scientifically, with expertise that complements ours.”
Now nearly halfway in to the five-year project, Womack says he is very optimistic. “We know that we are going to have some of the gene locations identified,” he predicts.
In addition to funding the research, the grant also helps fund undergraduate, veterinary and graduate education, according to the CVM.