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ISP: Genes & Traits for Healthy Animals

This BBSRC-funded Institute Strategic Programme seeks to sustainably enhance animal productivity, efficiency and welfare by dissecting genotype-phenotype relationships and their biological basis.


The global scale of animal production is vast, with estimated stocks of 33bn poultry, 1.7bn cattle and buffalo, 1.2bn sheep and 1bn pigs in 2020. Over half of all fish and shellfish consumed now derive from aquaculture. Demand continues to rise owing to population growth and urbanisation. However, aspects of agriculture are harming the planet. Around 50 per cent of Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture and 77 per cent of this is used to graze animals or produce crops to feed them, resulting in loss of habitats and biodiversity. Farm animals also produce greenhouse gases, with methane emission from ruminants being of particular concern. The National Food Strategy urges a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption by 2030, but this must be set in the context of the 1.1bn chickens, 11.1m pigs, 11.3m sheep and 1.9m cattle slaughtered in the UK in 2021, alongside 51.4m salmon from Scottish aquaculture. In low- and middle-income countries animal farming is a key route out of hunger and poverty. Animal protein aids physical and cognitive development, yet as of today 880m people across 92 countries lack sufficient food and  770m are chronically undernourished. Selective breeding has enhanced animal performance and welfare, and we believe that further gains can be achieved in both advanced and developing animal production systems.  

Traits relevant to the performance of farmed animals, such as growth rate, body composition and efficient use of the diet, vary between individuals. To understand why, we have pioneered strategies to define the genetic make-up of animals. When applied to populations of animals where traits have been measured, we can identify regions of the genome associated with specific traits. Sometimes, this involves changes to a gene such that the protein it encodes, and its function, is altered. More often, traits involve variation in the areas between genes that are poorly understood. Thus, we need to better define how farm animal genomes are organised, expressed and controlled. In turn, we need to understand how variation in the genome or its expression affects the function of cells, tissues and body systems across life stages to guide breeding decisions. Farm animals are not as well understood as humans or model organisms and the programme will help us to better understand how they develop and stay healthy and productive.  


The programme integrates expertise from diverse disciplines to   advance the following goals:    

Theme 1: Understand the genetic basis of traits relevant to production. We aim to identify regions of the genome of farmed animals associated with their performance, including adaptation to harsh environments. We study how varied their genomes are, and whether they are expressed in different ways. By working with breeding companies operating at commercial scale, we develop methods that use this information to inform breeding decisions for farmed animals of the future.   

 Theme 2: Understand how animal genomes are organised, expressed and regulated. We contribute to international efforts to define where genes are located in farmed animal genomes, when and where they are expressed, and what controls this. Emphasis is placed on cells and tissues that play important roles in farm animal productivity and health.  

Theme 3: Understand the development and life-long health of farmed animals. We study how cells, tissues and body systems develop and function through life, including the impact of genetic variation on this. We determine if differences between animals can be reproduced in simple cellular systems, and assess how these are caused by specific variations in the genome. This includes the design and testing of edits to animal genomes that we predict will be beneficial for animals and agriculture.   

We act as a hub for collaboration and aim to achieve tangible benefits for farmed animals, society and the economy. The programme allows us to train the next generation of researchers and innovators and support national capacity to transform the food system. This programme is supported by a £8.7m award from the BBSRC, which runs from April 2023 to March 2028. The programme leadership team comprises Dr Denis Headon (overall lead), Dr James Prendergast (Theme 1), Dr Emily Clark (Theme 2) and Dr Megan Davey (Theme 3).  


Dr Denis Headon

Group Leader/Senior Research Fellow

Dr James Prendergast

Senior Research Fellow

Dr Emily Clark

Group Leader

Dr Megan Davey

Senior Research Fellow