Enhancing Germplasm Resources of Livestock and Poultry
Known as a “life bank” for livestock and poultry, this modern “Noah’s Ark” is the esteemed Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources Bank of Beijing Municipality.
According to the Bible, Noah built an ark to save his family and all the world's animals from a flood. No evidence of Noah's ark has been found. But in Beijing, such an ark for continuation of species has existed for years. In a room of the Animal Husbandry Station of Beijing Municipality, samples of embryos, blood and DNA of livestock and poultry are stored in liquid nitrogen tanks.
The purpose of storing these genetic materials is so they can be used by advanced biotechnology to revive the species if they were extinct. Known as a “life bank” for livestock and poultry, this modern “Noah's Ark” is the Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources Bank of Beijing Municipality, or the Centre of Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources in Northern China of China National Genebank.
More than three hundred years ago, residents near Beijing's Andingmen and Deshengmen neighbourhoods began to raise a chicken with a large crest, feathered legs and feet and feathers that grow around its beak, called Beijing Youji, known as Beijing Fatty Chicken.
This chicken were popular among locals for its tender meat. Later, it drew attention from
chefs of the imperial kitchen and became a course of Empress Dowager Cixi (regency: 1861–1908) of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The chicken gained considerable fame and was called “the Yellow Chicken of Chinese Imperial Court”, and also became a common ingredient of courses at the state banquet for celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
But the famous chicken neared extinction. After the 1970s, foreign chicken breeds with rapid growth, high yield egg production, low cost of feeding were introduced to China, bringing a great challenge for Beijing Fatty Chicken to survive because its egg production was a mere 120 per year. Farmers began to raise foreign breeds instead of chickens, which led to its rapidly declining supply and by the 1980s the chickens came close to not being raised by Beijing farmers and kept on a farm for breed conservation.
Favour came in 1999 and the chicken's density of population gradually grew after the Research and Development Centre of Beijing Fatty Chicken was set up. New breeds of chickens with high quality were bred based on researches on genetic breeding technologies. This chicken has now been introduced to most parts of China, but suburban Beijing still boasts the majority of its population. Germplasm protection enabled the chickens to revive on the brink of extinction. Other Beijing's breeds including Beijing Duck and Beijing Black (Peking Black, a breed of domestic pig) are also key objects of germplasm protection.
Germplasm resources are nonrenewable. Ancient local breeds, new breeds and genetic materials can all be included in the scope of germplasm protection. China possesses the world's most abundant genetic resources of livestock and poultry. There are 545 local breeds of livestock and poultry that have been discovered in China, accounting for about one sixth of the world's total amount of genetic resources.
But resources of China's livestock and poultry have been declining. For example, the protection of Beijing's local breeds faces challenges due to the city's increasing population and rapid urban development, gradual reduction of the local breeds' production and introduction of foreign breeds.
Zheng Ruifeng, director of the Animal Husbandry Station of Beijing Municipality, said, “Biological resources, are a strategic reserve and the same as human resources.” In 2013, after reforms, the Beijing Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Station was divided into the Beijing Animal Husbandry Station and Beijing Animal Disease Control Centre. Afterwards, the Beijing Animal Husbandry Station began to prepare for the Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources Bank of Beijing Municipality.
Zero to One
Many people might not be familiar with “germplasm” but not estranged from its “seed bank.” On Spitsbergen Island in Norway is a famous seed bank, Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault is built 120 metres inside a sandstone mountain on the island. The temperature can be maintained below 18 degrees Celsius inside the vault year-round, which is 130 metres above sea level that keep it dry in case the ice caps melt.
Samples inside the vault can be accessed when regular genebanks lose samples due to natural disasters or nuclear wars. The samples stored in the vault ensure that human beings can resume agricultural production even in the face of worldly disasters.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault is by no means unique. In China or other countries, similar institutions are engaged in this work, but most of them serve to preserve plants' germplasm mainly because the preservation of animals' germplasm needs higher requirements because of its technological process and degree of difficulty. In China, germplasm resource banks for livestock and poultries developed by government agencies are few and thus, developing the Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources Bank of Beijing Municipality can be termed “from zero to one.”
At first the Beijing Animal Husbandry Station had to carry out moderate development due to its limited space and infrastructure. The station arranged an area for experiments, where a range of facilities were provided to improve the hardware of the resource bank including equipment for monitoring oxygen content of the environment and temperatures inside the resource bank.
Over the past three years, the resource bank has been provided 25 facilities for managing samples and monitoring oxygen content and temperature, which ensure germplasm resources of livestock and poultries from Beijing or around China of the next 15 or 20 years such as samples of their semina, embryos, blood, tissues and DNA
can be securely stored in the long term and standardisation management can be carried out for tracing their data.
Quality control and operational systems are also key issues for developing the resource bank. Before the establishment of the resource bank, China has had no such agency established in its provinces or municipalities. As far as its management was concerned, how did it set up a thorough and feasible operational programme and standard without experience as a reference?
Almost everything was new means of exploration. According to Zheng, in 2015, management took six months to divide the resource bank into functional areas and carry out trials. In 2016, it completed designs of eight internal control programmes, including sample management, personnel management and an emergency plan to ensure its stable operation. Although these procedures and specifications may not be applicable to practical problems, staff members of the resource bank continually improve or re- edit them to ensure its scientific and stable operation.
The resource bank has now been operated under the requirement of a cold chain at a range of ultra-low temperature to low temperature (from below 196 degrees Celsius to below 80 degrees Celsius and below 20 degrees Celsius). The resource bank has established specifications on classification, collection, transportation, preprocessing, storage and daily monitoring of samples of conventional genetic materials (blood, semina, and DNA).
Comprised are managerial and technical specifications. Management specifications include laboratory operation and instrument files and management. Technological specifications include monitoring of technological procedures for microsatellites of poultry.
What kinds of livestock and poultries' germplasms can be stored in the resource bank? It starts with the resources of livestock and poultries from Beijing, where it has a long history of raising livestock and poultry and over 80 breeds from seven categories including pigs, cattle and horses.
Beijing has five local breeds including Beijing Fatty Chicken and Beijing Duck, and 11 series of their hybrid breeds including Jingbai Chicken, Nankou (Number One) Beijing Duck and Beijing Duck Type Z, which are listed in Zhongguo xuqin pinzhongzhi (“the annals of China's livestock and poultry's breeds”). In 2016, the new cultivated breeds include Jingbai Chicken Number One and Jingxing Yellow Chicken's Hybrid Breed Number 103. The aforementioned breeds have been covered by the germplasm bank.
“The purpose of the germplasm resources bank is to store the core breeds,” Zheng says. Research on the survey of livestock and poultry breeds of Beijing has been carried out for many years, providing favourable conditions for selecting high quality samples for the resource bank. According to Zheng, there are 197 certified farms for breeding livestock and poultry in Beijing, including 86 for breeding pigs, 27 for cattle, 68 for poultry farms, five of which are national core breeding farms (three pig breeding and two poultry farms) and five national breeding preservation farms.
Genetic resources of local livestock and poultry breeds should be effectively preserved, but Zheng thought that with the advancement of science and technology that information of other breeds are useful. He added, “The germplasm resource bank first selects rare and endangered breeds and local breeds.”
The germplasm resource bank is not just for taking samples of local livestock and breeds of poultry. At 8:30 a.m. on one day, staff members of the germplasm resources bank was about to visit a farm near Xiaotangshan in Changping District to take blood samples of alpacas. Equipment including vacuum blood tubes for sampling were put into in the trunks of vehicles. After they entered the farm, over a hundred gentle yet timid alpacas curiously gazed at the staff members wearing protective clothing and holding syringes.
Taking samples along with their methods vary from species to species. Generally speaking, using non- invasive sampling can only cause minimal harm. Vacuum negative pressure methods for taking blood samples of alpacas is widely used, safe and reliable. A staff member skillfully found the jugular vein of an alpaca and inserted a needle into it. Dark red vein blood slowly flew into a vacuum blood tube.
After a few seconds, a staff member withdrew the needle and immediately turned the tube upside down eight times and put it into a box of samples. According to the staff member, the vacuum blood tube has many types, one of which was a tube with a purple cap (a tube for routine blood tests). One staff member said, “The tube contains anticoagulant. After taking the blood samples, we turn the tube upside down eight times to mix the anticoagulant with the blood to prevent coagulation.”
The key to preserving blood samples is low temperature. Long-term preservation can't be achieved with blood samples although there's ice in them. After sampling, the staff members immediately drove to the laboratory for DNA extraction of the samples. The bottles containing extracted DNA would be brought to the germplasm resource bank, where staff members need to wear thick antifreezing gloves and goggles to put the frozen box containing DNA into storage tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. Long-term storage for the DNA can be carried out at a temperature of below 170 degrees Celsius due to the presence of liquid nitrogen.
When genetic resources are needed, they can be taken out of the tanks and released. “The germplasm resources stored here can be used for pure breeding or cross breeding of livestock and poultry through exchanging genetic resources. If necessary, we select the best samples to create a high quality breed. For example, sperm, embryos and gene samples can be used for artificial insemination, transferring embryos and genetic research of biodiversity respectively. We will set up a resource platform to interpret and use genetic information with biological technologies,” Zheng explained.
The germplasm bank stores 1,380 blood samples and tissues of Peking Chicken and Beijing Duck, 600 and 2,628 blood samples of high quality pigs and Holstein cows respectively, and 700 samples of semina of bulls of Holstein, Limousin, Angus and Simmental; collects 600 DNA samples of Qinghai Finewool Sheep, Karakul Sheep, Tibetan Sheep and Small-tailed Han (a breed of sheep), and 120 genetic samples of Equus (a genus of mammals in the Equidae family).
The Centre of Livestock and Poultry Germplasm Resources in Northern China of China National Genebank not only ensures the preservation of genetic materials of livestock and poultry but also advances the development of Beijing's germplasm resources.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway
Samples are marked and preserved in a refrigerator.
Staff from germplasm resources bank take blood samples from an alpaca.
DNA samples are preserved in boxes and brought to the germplasm resource bank. DNA samples are placed in storage tanks filled with liquid nitrogen.