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Ideas Become Legend: achievements with an impact

This week we are taking part in the VisitScotland’s Legends campaign, showcasing Edinburgh’s strength in the life sciences section.

With 19 universities and world leading research centres, Scotland has the largest concentration of animal health and aquaculture researchers in Europe. As part of VisitScotland's "Legends" campaign to celebrate Life Sciences in Edinburgh, we put together some of our achievements that have the potential to benefit society.

Dolly the Sheep

Dolly the sheep with Ian Wilmut

On 5 July 1996, the world’s most famous sheep - Dolly - was born as part of experiments at The Roslin Institute, which were trying to develop a better method for producing genetically modified livestock. If successful, this would mean fewer animals would need to be used in future experiments. Dolly was cloned from a cell taken from the mammary gland of a six-year-old Finn Dorset sheep and an egg cell taken from a Scottish Blackface sheep.

Technologies for animal health

DNA

Scientists at Roslin have been using the latest genetic technologies to improve the health and welfare of animals, producing animals that are resistant to disease. This can be done for instance by selective breeding, using genotyping tools that enable genomic selection for desirable traits, or by genome editing, which involves the use of "gene scissors" to precisely cut the genome at a specific location, leading to small-scale, targeted changes in the DNA sequence.

Pigs resistant to deadly virus

Christine Burkard with 3 pigs

Roslin scientists have used gene-editing techniques to produce pigs that can resist one of the world’s most costly animal diseases. The virus infects pigs using a receptor on their cells’ surface called CD163. Roslin researchers used gene editing techniques to cut out a small section of the CD163 gene. Tests with the virus ‒ called Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) ‒ found the pigs do not become infected at all.

Salmon resistant to diseases

A closeup image of a salmon underwater

Salmon is Scotland's single biggest food export and provides thousands of jobs. Decreasing risks of salmon becoming ill is therefore very important for the country.

Pancreas Disease is one of the most problematic infectious diseases of farmed Atlantic salmon. Researchers at the Institute found that half of the observed variation in resistance to the disease could be explained by genetic factors that are passed from one generation to the next. One particular part of the salmon's genetic make-up is responsible for almost a quarter of this variation. Based on these results, it is possible to breed fish stocks that are more resistant to the virus. Similar techniques may be used to produce salmon more resistant to sea lice.

Whilst selective breeding can improve disease resistance in salmon stocks, it requires time as it takes place over several generations. Genome editing has the potential to rapidly increase the rate at which disease resistant salmon can be produced. Genome editing technology will be used to investigate genes underlying resistant to Infectious Salmon Anaemia, also known as 'salmon flu' ‒ a disease that causes severe losses in affected farms.

Healthier chickens and safer eggs

A diagram of chicken and egg health

Scientists at The Roslin Institute, working with the University of Cambridge, have developed GM chickens that can catch bird flu but do not pass it on to other chickens. The chickens are engineered to make a 'decoy' molecule. This prevents new viruses being made, so the disease cannot spread. The 'decoy' matches a part of the flu virus that is present in all types of influenza, so the GM chickens stop the spread of all types of avian influenza virus.  

Roslin scientists are not only working for making healthier chickens, but also making sure they are stronger. Dr Ian Dunn and collaborators at the major poultry genetics companies Hy-Line and Lohmann Tierzucht, will lay the groundwork for breeding hens with stronger bones by developing a novel x-ray based measurement system that is practical for breeders to use.

And once we have healthier, stronger chickens, it is important to ensure that the eggs they lay are safe for their chicks. Researchers at the Institute are investigating why some eggs are less susceptible to infections than others. The main focus of the research is to reduce the risk of disease being passed on to the chicks that hatch from these eggs. This could help to reduce the need for antibiotics in poultry production and will bring huge welfare benefits for the birds themselves.

Low-emission cattle

Three cows in a field.

Researchers identified a genetic link between host animals, the microbial community in their digestive tract and the methane that they produce. The findings could ultimately help farmers respond to the growing global demand for meat, while minimising the associated environmental impact. The study, which won an internationally respected research prize, is a the result of a collaboration involving Scotland’s Rural College, The Roslin Institute and The University of Aberdeen.

Machine learning to predict infection risk

A graphic showing E.coli

Certain strains of the bacteria Escherichia coli that are harmless to cattle can cause serious human disease if we ingest contaminated food or water. Roslin researchers trained computers to 'recognise' the subset of strains present in cattle that are a threat to human health. The software learns the DNA signatures that are associated with E. coli samples that have caused outbreaks of infection in people and can therefore identify these more dangerous strains in the future. This machine-learning approach is also being applied to identify the host animal source of E. coli and Salmonella and predict the ones more likely to be able to infect other animals and humans.

Supporting farmers in Africa

Bill Gates and Appolinaire Djikeng

Our scientists' work in genetic and genomics is particularly relevant for Tropical countries where animals sometimes struggle to thrive in extreme weather conditions. The Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH) is a joint venture between The Roslin Institute, Scotland's Rural College and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and Ethiopia. CTLHG aims to improve the productivity of livestock breeds that are available to small-holder farmers in Africa and enhance animals' resilience and resistance to disease, by using the latest genetic and genomics technologies. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development together contribute with £14m of funding to support CTLGH’s activities.

A lab for communities

Kids in the EBSOC lab

The Roslin Institute and the wider University of Edinburgh organise regular activities to bring science closer to communities, in particular to those who have a low "science capital" and are not usual in contact with science in their daily lives.

The Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC) is a teaching laboratory built to deliver interactive scientific workshops for school pupils from age 10 to 18 and members of the public. During school workshops, pupils get hands-on with real experiments in a fun way to learn about topics linked to the school curriculum and research and clinical work at the University of Edinburgh.

EBSOC is unique in Scotland and its workshops are in high demand, with 1,200 pupils and teachers visiting since January from over 50 Scottish schools, five international schools/universities and five community groups. In addition to hands-on activities, EBSOC gives pupils the chance to meet researchers and vets working at the University and it also offers professional development opportunities for teachers.

Gold award for supporting women in science

The Athena SWAN group at The Roslin Institute after receiving the gold award

The Roslin Institute received an Athena SWAN Gold Award in recognition of its efforts in supporting the careers of women in science. A much lower proportion of women scientists than male ones progress to the most senior levels in academia. The Roslin Institute is committed to changing this by actions that support women's career development. Athena SWAN provides a framework to work at a local and a national level to support staff better so that they can achieve their full potential. This is a remarkable achievement for the Institute given that only 2 departments in Scotland currently hold the Gold Award.

Canter the horse

Canter the horse

This year, a beautiful new sculpture by Sculptor Andy Scott - perhaps best known for the iconic Kelpies - has been permanently installed at the heart of the Easter Bush Campus. The sculpture "Canter" was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal.

Canter has a similar composition to the Kelpies but creator Andy Scott said he wanted to produce something more animated, with a long flowing mane. Canter fits well with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, which was originally established to support the treatment of working horses.

Related links

Gene-edited pigs are resistant to billion dollar virus, study finds

Salmon breeding to benefit from gene study of disease resistance

New approaches for breeding resistance to Infectious Salmon Anaemia virus

GM chickens that don't transmit bird flu

New grant to improve hen health and productivity

Egg study may improve food safety

Award winning Scottish research could pave the way for ‘low-emission cattle’

Predicting the potential of E. coli transmission from cattle to humans

Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre

Royal launch for new sculpture and buildings on Campus

Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health