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Domestic Animals in Agriculture and Biomedical Research

The use of domesticated or managed animals in research is important for improving the efficiency of animal production, alleviating poverty, promoting human health and contributing to biomedical research.

Portions of this article were published previously by Reynolds et al., (2009).

The use of domesticated or managed animals in research is important for improving the efficiency of animal production. The U.S. has a long tradition of excellence in research using domesticated and other managed species. Many of the breakthroughs in animal breeding/genetics, animal nutrition, animal reproduction, animal production methods, meat science and muscle biology, animal behavior, animal health and well-being, and other areas have resulted from research conducted at U.S. land-grant universities and/or private enterprises.

In addition to improved production efficiency and enhanced economic returns, research using domestic animals also contributes to the global effort to alleviate poverty and promote human health, which is particularly relevant in developing countries. Animal food sources are particularly appropriate for combating human malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies while offering the most efficient utilization of resources that would otherwise go underutilized. Clearly, research with domestic animals has and will continue to contribute to global health and socioeconomic well-being for the foreseeable future.

A significant but often overlooked fact is that research with domestic animals has been an important contributor to biomedical types of research during the last several centuries. This research has contributed to many of the major advances in human medicine and surgery. This historic “dual purpose” of research with livestock species usually is not recognized when focusing attention on either livestock or biomedical outcomes.

However, the importance of this dual impact is experiencing a minor renaissance which, we hope, will expand to a broader understanding and application of domestic animal research models for both agricultural and biomedical relevant purposes. Recent workshops held jointly by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) focusing on the “Advantages of Agriculturally Important Domestic Species as Biomedical Models” have continued to elevate awareness of the significance of research efforts with livestock species for dual purposes of agricultural and biomedical outcomes.

Historical Perspective

From a historical perspective, research with domestic animal models has been critical to advances to human biomedical and surgical practices. For example, research in embryology, which has provided the basis for understanding developmental processes, including birth defects and related disorders, has relied heavily on animal models, including domestic species, from ancient times to the present. The use of appropriate animal models, including those with agricultural relevance, continues to be critical in nutritional and biomedical research.

Our current understanding and application of nutritional principles has been impacted tremendously by basic and applied research with livestock. The broad nutritional areas of energetics, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, minerals, growth, and body composition have been heavily underpinned with research in relevant livestock species.

Regarding the function and metabolism of known macro- and micronutrients, contributions of livestock animal models to our current understanding are extensive. The history of nutritional research is a story of complementary efforts in agriculturally relevant species, rodents and humans, with breakthroughs in each fostering the work in the others. Consequently, early work in the area of energetics and micronutrients was instrumental in spawning the fields of biochemistry and, subsequently, molecular biology.

The use of appropriate animal models, including those with agricultural relevance, continues to be critical in nutritional and biomedical research. Current examples include, but are not limited to, impacts of maternal nutrition on developmental programming, porcine models of obesity and metabolic syndrome, bovine models of fat synthesis and its regulation, and domestic animal models to optimize the techniques used for assisted reproductive therapies in humans.

Current Efforts and Future Prospects in North Dakota

Numerous research efforts in North Dakota are focused, in varying degrees, on the interface of agricultural and biomedical issues. A detailed description of these efforts is beyond the scope of this writing; however, activities are 1) multidisciplinary, spanning across departments, research centers and institutions, and 2) integrated, crossing borders of the research, teaching and Extension missions of the land-grant system. In particular, the Animal Sciences Department and the College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources are uniquely positioned to provide significant contributions to these integrated and multidisciplinary efforts currently and into the future.

Research efforts focusing on livestock production questions while simultaneously addressing current biomedical issues are highly relevant and likely will become even more important in the next couple of decades.

Primary drivers of these historic and re-emerging dual-purpose research efforts include the need to make efficient use of available research dollars; the need to make rapid and relevant advances in biomedical research areas; the importance of animal agriculture in meeting projected world food demands’ and the expanding recognition that food production practices, environmental stewardship, and human health and well-being are interconnected on micro- and macroscopic levels.

Editor’s Note: A version containing references to all work mentioned is available upon request.

Joel Caton and Larry Reynolds, Professors, Center for Nutrition and Pregnancy, NDSU Animal Sciences Department

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