Roslin Research Institute, Edinburgh

Tue, 2017-11-14

“Roslin BioCentre is a thriving scientific community at the heart of the Midlothian Science Zone and hosts an impressive array of world-leading research intensive companies and a wide range of flourishing commercial life science related organisations on-site.”  An impressive accolade, my mouth was already watering long before I arrived at Easter Bush for the Forum’s visit to Edinburgh, and specifically to our hosts at the Roslin Institute, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).  The description (taken from the Roslin BioCentre website) goes on: “Roslin is an internationally known name in the field of life sciences and benefits from global recognition as the birth place of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.” Which is a pity, because she wasn’t (not by a long chalk!) Dolly was the first clone derived from an adult cell, in contrast to many cloned mice previously derived from embryonic stem cells. Continuing briefly with this aside, the intention behind cloning Dolly from a mammary cell was to also, during the cloning process, introduce additional genetic material into future transgenic cloned sheep or preferably goats or cows, such that these animals would then produce high value pharmaceutical or other proteins in their milk. That ambition was rather quietly realised a few years ago, with the licencing in the USA of ATryn, an antithrombotic drug produced in the milk of transgenic goats. “Transgenic” conjurs up unwelcome Frankenstein-like images in many people’s minds, and so it is appropriate that our Programme of talks at SRUC included an overview from Chris Proudfoot of the more sophisticated and controllable genetic manipulation procedures that have replaced it, commonly referred to as Gene Editing. At this juncture I cannot resist a small marketing exercise wearing my Editor’s hat: for anyone interested in Chris’s work, especially as it relates to dairy animals, I can recommend “Genetically Engineering Milk”, a review article published in the Journal of Dairy Research (Whitelaw et al 2016). The use of “molecular scissors” to precisely alter the genome at the level of individual base pairs has already enabled the production of several hundreds of gene-edited farm animals, and the very real hope is that future generations of animals will live healthier lives through this approach. If gene editing is still in the future (from a commercial point of view), the other major theme of some fascinating talks from SRUC researchers is very much with us already: selective breeding through genomic evaluation. An interesting feature of the afternoon was the realisation that genomic selection has moved on from dairy cattle (Mike Coffey addressed this topic) to beef cattle (Eileen Wall and Abby Moran) and dairy goats (Jo Connington). The afternoon’s talks concluded with a presentation by Steph Smith of research using mid-infrared milk analysis data to identify phenotypic variation, and potentially health traits of individual cows. Given the huge number of milk samples routinely collected and analysed around the world, the potential of this approach could be enormous. SRUC’s website stresses optimisation of health, welfare and fitness-related traits as a priority area for its animal breeding and genomics research. They are not alone in this ambition. Just across the road from the Roslin Institute is the Moredun Research Institute, which for almost one hundred years has conducted research on animal health, with a focus on sheep. Established by farmers, the Institute maintains a very close relationship with the farming community under its Director, Julie Fitzpatrick. Julie was the Forum’s guest at dinner, and afterwards gave a most stimulating talk entitled “Future Advances in the Management of Cattle Diseases”. Specific disease issues such as parasitic nematode infections, E. coliO157, protozoal zoonoses, bovine respiratory disease, reproductive diseases and mastitis have all been the subject of Moredun research, so whilst the sheep focus remains, dairy cattle are certainly part of today’s “mix”. Julie was also able to tell us something about the political background to ongoing and future research, stressing global issues such as food security, environmental protection, climate change and one health as well as drawing on her personal experiences in Africa. Closer to home, the issue engaging everyone’s attention is Brexit, and we were fortunate to have a clear and authoritative (as far as that is possible!) account of the threats and opportunities posed by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. There are major uncertainties not only in research funding but also in acceptance/adoption of new technologies (gene editing, for instance), legislation, movement of animals etc etc. Finally, Julie was also able to present the different funding opportunities offered by the UK Government, highlighting amongst others the Innovate UK industry co-funding initiative. We had first-hand experience of one such scheme next morning, when Dave Ross led the breakfast discussion session on the topic of “The role of technology in delivering a more competitive dairy industry”. Dave focused on the Agri-EPI Centre, an Innovate UK project in precision agriculture and engineering that combines research and development with demonstration and training. The multiple ways in which IT and Big Data, sensing (remote and animal-centric), robotics and other automation, AI (that’s artificial intelligence, not the other one!), bioinformatics and other technologies too numerous to mention are being adopted in agriculture is rather mind-boggling. Agri-EPI Centre covers both livestock and arable farming, but Dave was able to highlight those areas of most interest to the Forum. Milking robots, accelerometers around the neck, leg or in the rumen, automated feed delivery, precision grazing and precision calf rearing, all of these feature either in the three Dairy Development Centres (in Somerset, Shropshire and Dumfries) or on one or other of the 22 satellite farms enrolled in the project. This is going to be a fascinating story to follow over the next few years. All in all, my visit to Edinburgh left me feeling rather optimistic about the future of a more technologically-based dairy industry that will be inherently more attractive to the next generation of young farmers as well as globally more competitive.  


Whitelaw CBA, Joshi A, Kumar S, Lillico SG and Proudfoot C (2016) Genetically engineering milk. Journal of Dairy Research 833-11