The $21 billion (€17bn) US beef industry is just beginning to emerge from a difficult period after a Holstein dairy cow in Washington state last December contracted the deadly brain-wasting mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Fall-out from the BSE scare included five of Cargill's Excel beef plants axing over 750 jobs in January. This latest genome project could boost severely bruised sales.
"This is the first whole genome association study completed in livestock," said Stephen Bates, vice president and general manager of MetaMorphix's subsidiary MMI Genomics.
Using its GENIUS-Whole Genome System, MMI identified and characterised a map of novel genetic markers based on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in beef cattle. The company then conducted a whole genome association study in a population of commercial beef cattle at Caprock - a company of Cargill - feedlot and discovered specific regions in the cattle genome that associate with 'desirable' beef traits.
Over fourteen million genotyping assays were generated during the research programme.
"We are pleased with the project progress. The creation of this unique set of markers in the bovine genome will permit the development of a product that we expect will aid the cattle feedlot technology aimed at production of superior cattle and beef," said Albert Paszek, director animal productivity and genomics at Cargill.
Strong first half year results announced in January by Cargill went some some way to softening the potentially devasting blow dealt by the BSE discovery. For the first half, Cargill said net profit in the fiscal second quarter ended 30 November reached $518 million (€423m), compared with $314 million a year ago, with its global grain, oilseed, cocoa and starch and sweetener operations showing improved results and the latest quarter including gains of $117 million from potential liabilities from a prior acquisition.
The company, whose operations span grain and crude oil trading, meat processing, and fertiliser production, said one time gains saw profit from continuing operations hitting $513 million, up 62 per cent from $316 million for the same period last year.