01/04/2012 - Advances in AI – More to achieve? By Stephen Waite, Head of Science, JSR Genetics

The role of AI, in delivering the ‘best of the best’ genetics - and farrowing rates of up to 95% - is already firmly established as pivotal to the success of the pig industry. So how much more is there to achieve? Can Research and Development yield real positive benefits? In our experience, the answer would be yes; on-going initiatives at JSR Genetics are offering pig producers improvements now - and plenty to look forward to.

One such project is the viability of offering sex selected semen, which would be a huge step forward for the pig industry. The potentially achievable, and preferable, split would be eight gilts to two boars.  However, the difficulty is being able to sex semen at a speed that is commercially viable.

Currently, the BPEX semen dosage standard guarantees over 2 billion single sperm in every single dose – so, for a single dose of single sexed semen, over two billion sperm would have to undergo the sex selection process.  In pigs, this process can be achieved using flow cytometers which work by detecting the tiny weight differential between male and female sperm – only around 0.8%.  For pigs, the quickest you can do this is 2,000 cells per second so it takes 11.5 days to produce a one billion female only dose or 23 days to sex a two billion female only dose, which is not viable due to cost.  However, if lobbying to have the UK standard dose lowered is successful, single sexed sperm could become a sound commercial proposition – just as it is in the cattle industry.

We already have trials underway with research partners such as UK based Harper Adams University College, investigating the effect of semen concentration on farrowing rates, and are confident of proving that using a lower dose will work without compromising production.

Once we can ascertain an optimal low dose for pigs – and we suspect this may be around 400 million - we will carry on our work with the University of York, who are currently involved in research with leading flow cytometer manufactures, to make that dose as easy as possible to sex.  Every year, sexing cells is getting faster, say by a factor of ten.  Now new chemicals that bind onto the male/female cells to make them easier to sort by weight are opening up yet another promising avenue for research.  Just one breakthrough could revolutionize the industry.

Last November JSR carried out 100% changeover of two studs to fully automatic packing machines that, using touch screen technology, fill up to 1,300 flat packs of semen per hour with an accuracy of +/- 1%.  The newly designed flat packs feature a tapered spout that will fit onto any catheters with a tight, leak free fit and easy to use twist off end.  These can now be resealed if opened by mistake.  The packs also feature larger, easier to read labels.

JSR, in partnership with the University of Kent and the Bridge Fertility Centre, have just been awarded a £500,000 Technology Strategy Board Grant which involves research into pig IVF, an initiative of particular interest to international customers.

It means that, rather than sending genetics in the form of live animals to international customers - a complex and expensive exercise involving testing every animal at a cost of £250 each - embryos could be suspended in a flask, requiring just one test and be sent as luggage on a normal commuter flight. This more convenient, cost-effective service would offer substantial savings to the value of around £600,000 per 1,000 animal order being passed down the supply chain. 

These collaborations, with the University of Kent, the Bridge Fertility Centre and also Harper Adams University, are excellent examples of how by bringing people together, all experts in different fields - to promote skills and expertise - there can be gains all round, often not only for the pig industry but for human health and well-being too.

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