Genome Researcher Has Come a Long Way…Literally by: Geoff Geddes

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Given the dynamic nature of animal genetics, it seems fitting that one of its prominent scientists has moved from the family farm in Egypt to groundbreaking research with Genome Alberta.

“I grew up on a small farm in a city named Damanhour, located near Alexandria, Egypt,” said Dr. Mohammed Abo-Ismail, postdoctoral fellow, Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta. “I am the eldest son of seven children, and traditionally the oldest male helps dad with the daily farm chores.”

He soon learned that he had a passion for agriculture, so the natural next step was earning a Bachelor in Agriculture Sciences with Honour Degree and Masters Degree from Alexandria University. In the process, he gained fundamental knowledge in animal breeding and genetics, sparking a move to Canada to accept an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Follow the leader

“I obtained a scholarship to pursue my PhD in Animal Genetics and Genomics under Dr. Stephen Miller at the Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock (CGIL), a research group at the University of Guelph that is a worldwide leader in animal genetics and genomics for beef cattle. During that time, I developed genomic tools for improving feed efficiency and carcass traits in Canadian beef cattle.”

After graduation, Dr. Abo-Ismail worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph for over three years on a large scale dairy cattle project involving almost 70 traits. He then joined Dr. Graham Plastow’s team at Livetock Gentec, applying his knowledge to several beef cattle genomics studies.

While the projects may change, Dr. Abo-Ismail’s focus remains the same: enhancing value for producers in both the short and long term.

Differences are the common thread

“The overall goal of my research has been to gain insight on why individuals within livestock populations are genetically different, and the molecular mechanisms and pathways behind these differences. Most importantly, I’ve been targeting how the differences are affecting economic traits in cattle and other ruminants such as production, milk, carcass and meat quality, feed efficiency, and health and fertility traits.”

Along the way, he has applied the principles of nutritional physiology, quantitative and molecular genetics and genomics to address these critical questions, always keeping one eye fixed firmly on the big picture.

“I have been effectively involved in research projects which are oriented to address industry-wide challenges and opportunities by employing cutting edge methods in animal production, molecular genetics, genomics and applied bioinformatics [the application of computing science techniques to solve problems in biological and medical science].”

As it turned out, his interest and expertise made him a perfect fit with the Genome Alberta project applying genomics to improve traits of interest to Canada’s commercial beef industry.

“A key focus of this initiative is identifying the genes responsible for feed efficiency and meat quality. We have been using imputation technology [a technique allowing geneticists to accurately evaluate the evidence for association at genetic markers that are not directly genotyped] to impute from low, medium and high density SNP panels to sequence data. Combining significant markers from different studies has yielded promising results in terms of the ability to predict feed efficiency in commercial beef cattle herds.”

Both the nature and the outcomes of the Genome Alberta project are ticking a lot of boxes on Dr. Abo-Ismail’s wish list.

“I am so excited to be part of the team working on this project because it’s an opportunity to deal with large data sets, particularly sequence genotypes.”

Cool tools

Also, the scientists have generated some valuable tools for producers such as genomic breed composition, sire assignment (or parentage testing) and hybrid vigour score (EnVigour genomic tool), as well as improving the selection accuracy using genotypes. At present, they are developing a cost effective genomic tool for selecting efficient animals using small marker panels from the current Genome Alberta project and other studies.

Whether with Genome Alberta or his previous projects, Dr. Abo-Ismail has been clear on where he’s going and why it matters, two key questions for any successful scientist.

“My efforts have targeted translation of the fundamental research work into applied targets to develop new and cost-effective tools. At the end of the day, it’s about helping producers and seed stock breeders in their selection decisions or management practices, as well as benefiting the industry, environmental sustainability and food security.”

Whether on a farm in Egypt or a lab in Canada, those are clearly goals worth pursuing.

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