Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced last week that the USDA will award $10 million to the University of Illinois to obtain a draft sequence of the swine genome.
"Pork is the major red meat consumed worldwide. With more than 61 million pigs in the nation, the sequence of the pig genome will have a significant impact on US agriculture," said Johanns.
The two-year project will lead to the development of new DNA-based tools to identify and select genetically superior pigs that resist infectious diseases, yield larger litter sizes, and produce leaner cuts of meat for consumers, said the USDA in a statement.
"It is hard to make genetic selections on meat quality when you can't see the quality until the animal is actually slaughtered. With the genetic sequence you can test the animal while it is still alive and make decisions for improvements," said Larry Schook, project director and professor of comparative genomics at the University of Illinois.
One example of these "improvements" would be the ability to increase the amount of flesh on an animal to produce high quality meat.
"By having the genetic sequence it becomes easy to utilize information for more meat and better quality meat," Schook told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
Understanding the genome sequence would also allow the industry to benefit from matching different pigs with their ideal environment, he explained.
"By putting the animals in their ideal environment they would grow better and faster- they would be more productive in that particular environment," he said.
If the scientists are successful, this would be the first time the genetic code of pigs is cracked. Initial efforts to understand the code were made in China and Denmark around five years ago, but the complexity of the project meant that it was not successful to its end.
Last year, scientists at Washington University in St. Lois found the sequence for the chicken genome, research that was funded by the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH) and supported by most major poultry breeders.
And the NIH is also funding research to complete the sequence for the cattle genome.
The current work on the pig genome, which is supported by swine breeders in the US and abroad, is due to be completed by the end of 2007- which is the Chinese year of the pig.