AFBI- keeping cattle herds free of infection

Bovine tuberculosis is an infectious
disease which not only affects cattle but also impacts the natural environment
and public health. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern
Ireland is using world-class science and research to investigate ways to prevent
the spread of the disease and keep cattle herds free from infection.
Selina Downes went to Belfast to find out more. Another day, another outbreak. A calf has
tested positive to bovine tuberculosis. The animal has had to be slaughtered the
farm has had to close and agricultural production has ceased. It’s an epidemic
costing farmers the government and taxpayers tens of millions of pounds
each year. Dr. Elizabeth Magowan is a Senior Director at the Agri-Food &
Biosciences Institute. AFBI is recognised internationally as a center of
excellence in bovine tuberculosis research. AFBI’s very much at the
forefront of research with regards to bovine TB and working with other
universities across the UK and into our own government and into the Defra government, working with our collaborators to establish how we can manage bovine
tuberculosis so through next-generation technologies to understand it’s it’s
transfer from wildlife to livestock and vice versa and indeed then modelling up
how we could potentially reduce its transmission. Much of the
research is done here at AFBI’s laboratories in Stormont, Dr. Adrian
Allen and his team have started using whole genome sequencing to study
transmission of the disease which is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium
bovis or M. bovis. We’re only looking using the old technology at eight sites of
the bovine genome. So genome sequencing gives us the ability to look at all four
million letters of genetic code in the M. bovis genome and then we can use that to figure out how each individual isolate taken from an individual cow or
badger differs from each other and from that we can build trees of genetic
relatedness which gives us an insight into the ongoing transmission dynamics
that are happening in areas and it’s that type of technology which is going
to hopefully give us a greater level of resolution in what’s
happening at a very very local scale. It’s also hoped this research and its
findings will influence the policymakers. We’ve already used it’s in an area in
eastern Northern Ireland and have seen the best evidence so far of ongoing
transmission between cattle and badgers. So these are species which are
continually transmitting to each other. That’s the sort of thing which hopefully
can go on to inform policy as to what to do about that. We have a market . and this market is obviously trading… Dr Andrew Byrne leads a team in veterinary
epidemiology, the science that looks at the patterns of a disease and how it
spreads. He’s currently studying the vast network
of cattle trades across Northern Ireland to see how it impacts on transmission.
Essentially what we do is that we utilise different datasets both
ecological and epidemiological to try and find, for example, risk factors that help
us understand the epidemiology of the disease and then by understanding these
risk factors, help to inform policymakers in terms of interventions and developing
the program around trying to control the pathogen in both wildlife and in
domestic hostds, which is cattle. Protecting animal plant and public
health is one of the key aims of AFBI David McCleery is Head of Bacteriology
and says another major global challenge to the agri-food industry is resistance
to antibiotics, which play an essential role in veterinary medicine and animal
welfare. Antibiotics have revolutionised human medicine but they also have an
essential role in veterinary medicine and for animal welfare. The challenge is
whether that impacts on resistance spreading through food chains. So the
work here is very much to help to promote animal health to promote animal
welfare but also to make sure that the responsible use of antibiotics underpins
everything that we do. Supporting industry and the environment and
improving agricultural production is at the heart of all the work carried out at
AFBI. Through innovation and partnerships it’s groundbreaking work ultimately
benefits us all.

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