Biotech company claims genetic selection can cut methane emissions in cattle

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Clara Bastian
GettyImages/Clara Bastian

Related tags Cattle Methane Genetic engineering

Synomics, an Anglo-Danish biological insights business, has identified a way to reduce emissions within agricultural cattle by selecting the ones that produce less methane genetically.

Its scientists have identified novel interactions between an animal’s genome and its rumen microbes that could reduce the amount of methane cattle produce. Through selective breeding, it claims this will enable farmers to selectively breed cattle with a significantly lower methane output, thus help them to reduce emissions.

A study by Synomics used its proprietary combinatorial analytics and prediction engine to analyse phenotypic and metagenomic data from more than 1000 dairy cows across two breeds and five countries to identify novel targets for the association between the host animal genome, its rumen microbiome and its methane emissions.

“The idea behind the system is to analyse the DNA of any breed of cattle by looking at the genome, find the gene that produces less methane and then selectively breed that breed of cattle,”​ a spokesperson explained.

While its latest study looked at two breeds of cattle, the company said the system could in theory be used on other breeds to determine those with the lowest methane outputs. Further, because there’s no altering of the cattle’s genetics or DNA, there’s no difference in the end product in terms in terms of taste or other aspects.

Some 42% of human-caused methane emissions come from agriculture, with burping livestock and manure being significant contributors, according to a recent UN and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition report.

Synomics added the process potentially allows farmers a cost-effective way to cut their carbon footprints. Currently, those looking to reduce the methane emissions from cattle might have to use premium-priced feed which impacts margins. But as the company’s method is based on selective breeding, not feed, the cows could continue to be fed in the more cost-efficient way.

“Carbon footprints are important for every business,” the​ spokesperson told us. “Nowadays, there's more sustainability targets and there's potentially going to be new targets in future that farmers may have to meet. So if they can have cattle that produces less methane without having to have massive overhead costs elsewhere -- just by selectively breeding the right cattle -- then it can help them hit targets.”

The company is also using selective breeding to improve egg weight consistency 

The business, which is based in Oxford, UK and Copenhagen, Denmark, says it uses combinatorial analytics to improve the yield and resilience of crops as well as livestock. It has spent the past 12 months developing its proprietary combinatorial Insights Platform to enable animal and crop scientists and producers to get a better understanding of what drives key production traits and innovate accordingly.

Another study by Synomics identified a way of improving the consistency off egg weights in laying hens by using a new approach to analysing variations within specific genes and then targeting birds with those gene variations for selected breeding.

The weight of an egg varies between 50 and 70g depending mainly on the age of the hen and on its genotype. Egg weight is a highly heritable trait, meaning much of the variance between hens is a direct result of genetics; it is also hugely important when it comes to poultry farmers’ profitability. The company says that selectively breeding which chicks are producing the heavier eggs allows for more consisted egg weights and more consistent profits for farmers. 

Dr Jon Lightner, Executive Chairman of Synomics, says the company’s end goal is to create animals and plants that are more productive and resilient, and ‘ignite a new revolution in world food production’. He said: “We are giving scientists, farmers and food producers the ability to learn more about the animals they breed and the crops that they grow with insights they have not been previously able to liberate from the data they already hold.”

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