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NZ research is leading way to better foods, health

New Zealand research is leading the way to better foods and health

11 June 2008

Agricultural and medical scientists at two of New Zealand’s leading research organisations are joining forces to improve animal production and human health.

A collaboration between international quality researchers at AgResearch and the Liggins Institute – a biomedical research institute at The University of Auckland – has the potential to bring about major improvements in agriculture, such as lamb growth, disease resistance and milk production, and human health.

The collaboration will be demonstrated this week during the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek with an innovative display at the AgResearch stand.

Liggins Institute Director Professor Peter Gluckman believes that the interface between human and animal science is a strength which NZ has yet to fully realise.

“Researchers at both these organisations have been at the forefront of a revolution in our understanding of biology,” he says.

“We now know that the ultimate potential of both animals and humans depends on more than genes alone It is the subtle interactions between the genes an individual inherits from its parents and its early life environment that determines its growth trajectory, body composition, reproductive potential and adult health.”

The rapidly emerging field of developmental epigenetics – the way in which the action of genes is regulated by signals from the environment – underpins these concepts.

AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Andrew West says that the new field of science offers much to both human health and pastoral livestock researchers.

“Scientists have shown that a fetus takes cues from its life before birth, such as the availability of nutrients, to predict what its future environment will be and chart a course of development that will fit it for that life. So, progeny from dams that are undernourished during pregnancy are likely to be born small, grow slowly and lay down fat rather than lean,” he says.

Following birth the animal or child’s developmental pathway and adult potential, for example to lean or fat, to health or disease, depends on how well it has predicted its actual postnatal environment.

Thus, if a human mother has poor nutrition during pregnancy her baby might predict that future food supplies will be scarce and set its metabolism to store and conserve fat. However, if this early prediction proves false and food – particularly food high in fat – is readily available, the infant may find its metabolism programmed for adult obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

An extended collaboration is soon to be formalised through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between AgResearch and the University of Auckland. This is expected to pave the way for rapid advances that will benefit the farming community and improve the health of New Zealanders

On the horizon are tests that, applied near birth, could predict the productive potential of animals; bioactive feed supplements to alter animals’ developmental pathways and new animal based foods designed to improve human health.

Dr West says early stage negotiations with commercial partners are underway. “We are looking forward to some of this new knowledge being used in the development of tools for farmers in the very near future.”

Dr West says the collaboration was particularly valuable to AgResearch scientists who found many commonalities in the work being undertaken at the Liggins institute.

“As we understand more about patterns of gene expression and how nutrition impacts on them, we will be able to accurately tailor nutritional pathways that involve appropriate feed supplements for livestock that will have beneficial affects on the fetus.”


ENDS

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