Report on the First International Camelid Genetics Workshop
February 22-24, 2008 was the date of the First International Workshop on Camelid Gentics, held in Scottsdale, Arizona, sponsored jointly by the Alpaca Research Foundation and the Alpaca Registry Inc. The goal was to initiate discussions and future collaborations between geneticists and research scientists, breeders, and veterinarians.
These discussions and collaborations would revolve around how to best utilize the new genomic tools that are rapidly becoming available with the publication of the first full sequence of an alpaca (Nyala’s Accoyo Carlotta, a light fawn, full accoyo ancestry, female huacaya alpaca. Carly is a third generation, American born alpaca that was born on my farm a few years ago). Carly’s entire 2.9 billion base pairs of sequence has been nearly completed by Wes Warren at Washington University of St. Louis. It is a 2x map, which means it may always have a number of gaps, but it has the vast majority of the genome present. It takes 8x or more coverage to really get the entire content of an animals genome with this approach. Something that is being considered in the future. Meanwhile, a consortium has formed between scientists at Washington University, St. Louis, the Broad Center, MIT, NCI and Binghamton University to fully annotate and describe the alpaca genome. This is done by comparing it to other published whole genomes (Cat, Human, Cow, etc…) and looking at similarities between sequences found in alpaca versus those of known function in humans, cattle, etc..
The workshop opened up Friday evening with an introduction by Bruce Beatty, president of the ARI, then a talk by world renowned geneticist Stephen J. O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. O’Brien is renowned for his role in sequencing the cat genome as well as being the person who discovered a key gene in resistance to HIV-AIDs in humans. Dr. O’Brien used analogies from the recently completed cat genome project to show what might be done with alpacas and other camelids. Saturday began with a background on what has been done by Dr. Warren Johnson’s lab at NCI. Warren started off discussing his background in wildlife biology studying predator-prey relationships between guanacos and mountain lions in South America, followed by the time-line of events in genome discovery for humans, and now for the alpaca, emphasizing the incredibly rapid pace at which this research now progresses. Dr. Johnson discussed how the genome was mapped and what we know so far. Dr. Polina Perelman discussed the cytogenetics of the alpaca genome, using karyotyping and FISH (fluorescent in situ hybridization) and other tools to characterize alpaca chromosomes. Then Joan Pontius finished up the presentation from Warren’s lab with discussion of the software tools available (now and in the future) to analyze the alpaca genome and learn from it by comparison with other genomes.
Kent Reed followed with his study developing STR markers from the new genome sequence. These Short Tandem Repeat markers, similar to what are used by the ARI to validate parentage in our alpacas, were spread evenly throughout the genome. He can provide primer sequence data and alignment data for anyone wishing to use them for gene mapping studies. LaRue Johnson presented data on the two most common defects in alpacas, choanal atresia and wry face, discussed their genetic nature, and how they are diagnosed. As always, it was a great talk, with his trademark sense of humor. He presented results of his recent survey of veterinarians on the incidence of many defects in alpacas.
After a break, Dr. Ahmd Tibary gave a detailed talk on reproductive disorders in camelids, highlighting potentially genetic disorders and discussion the incidence of each disorder, for future study using the new genome tools. Dr. Ed DuBovi followed bydiscussing what is known about viruses that infect alpacas, and viruses which might infect alpacas in the future, and their prevalences.
After a hearty lunch and much discussion around the pool, something I am not used to in February in upstate New York, we returned to hear Chris Cebra talk about glucose metabolism in alpacas (and humans) and the biological and genetic basis of the very unusual system seen in camelids. Definitely some candidates for gene mapping and expression studies that could come out of Chris’s talk.
George Saperstein gave an enjoyable talk (enjoyable because of his fine sense of humor, not because he was talking about horrible defects of alpacas) on common congenital defects in llamas and alpacas, using some of his own survey data to estimate prevalence. Terje Raudsepp talked about alpaca cytogenetics, and her unusual finding of microchromosomes in alpacas. I will be interested to see what these turn out to be after chromosome painting, to see where they came from. Chris Lupton led us into the break with a great talk on fiber measurement, discussing all the different ways fiber can be measured and quantified (something necessary if we are to find the genes involved in these complex traits).
Following much discussion over the break, we picked back up with Phil Sponenberg talking about color genetics in alpacas, then Kylie Munyard presented some very exciting new data on the melanocortin-1 receptor gene in alpacas, where she found a few mutations associated with black pigment on alpacas (or the lack thereof). Belinda Appleton presented preliminary data on her study to map the suri gene. Belinda and Kylie both came all the way from Australia for this workshop, and it was lovely to see worldwide collaborations starting.
We all went out on the town to have fabulous dinners all over lovely Scottsdale, AZ. I joined Belinda and Kylie as well as Manni Sidhu (geneticist from Melbourne) and a llama breeder from California for a great dinner and great discussion about where this exciting new field is going.
Sunday morning we all broke up into groups. Fiber, Congenital and/or Reproductive diseases, and susceptibility to disease to discuss what should be the priorities, both short term and long term, for each of these areas, and then we all reported back for a wrap up and closing remarks by Murry Fowler. I was in the Fiber Group, although I also wish I could have sat in on the congenital disease group. I missed Murry’s talk, as I had to catch my flight back to Binghamton. It was a very productive weekend, and kudos to Patricia Craven and Warren Johnson especially for pulling this off so seamlessly.
Andy Merriwether, Ph.D.
Departments of Anthropology and Biology
Nyala Farm Alpacas
104 Rockwell Rd
Vestal, NY 13850