We are very fortunate to have living in our Region, Dr Belinda Appleton of Melbourne University – one of Australia’s foremost researchers into alpaca genetics. Belinda first spoke to us at the February 2010 meeting at Coonardoo Alpacas and came along to our recent Christmas gathering at Adelyn Alpacas to provide an update on the progress of her research project into the alpaca genome.
Belinda described the reasons why the alpaca gene pool is relatively narrow and prone to a higher rate of genetic faults than other domestic livestock. The bottlenecks in the alpaca gene pool as Belinda outlined them have been due to
- the alpaca cull in Peru during Spanish colonization
- selective breeding for white, and
- line breeding.
Belinda’s project was funded for $350,000 for 3 years with a combination of government funding and funding provided by Alpaca Genomics Australia, a group of 6 or 7 Australian alpaca breeders. Some further funding was gained from the US, but will require refunding in the near future.
A partial map of the alpaca genome exists, but only for huacaya. It was developed in the U.S. but is available to Belinda and her research team.
The research team is in the process of identifying the markers for suri and is also working on identifying the markers for a number of genetic faults in alpacas such as blue eyes, wry face, cyclopia, fused toes, polydactyly and choanal artresia.
Blue eyes are obvious so why identify the marker? Most of the genetic problems that Belinda is researching are recessive. Each parent will contribute one allele so even if their cria doesn’t exhibit a fault they might still be carrying the gene for the fault from a parent and that fault could re emerge in a future generation. Belinda believes that alpaca breeders should be breeding to eliminate the faults.
White with blue eyes and deafness occurs in other mammals, such as cats. White alpacas with blue eyes are typically deaf but this doesn’t necessarily preclude them from living comfortable lives. Some breeders prize blue-eyed whites for their sparkling white fleeces and their capacity for throwing grey cria. But the gene can re emerge generations on and one has to consider the tendency to deafness. In New Zealand it is no longer possible to register alpaca males with blue eyes as stud males. The owner of a blue-eyed alpaca faces a dilemma – to breed or not to breed knowing that the blue-eyed gene is continuing down the generations. Belinda has now developed a test for the marker for blue eyes and soon it will be available to alpaca breeders. This could ultimately help identify whether or not a particular mating will be likely to produce a cria with the gene for blue eyes.
While the issue of whether or not blue eyes should be bred out of alpacas is contentious, some of the other faults such as wry face and choanal artresia are far more disturbing. While a slightly wry face may not be perceptible, examples so extreme that the alpaca cannot eat or see properly or at all do occur. With choanal artresia, a blockage or other fault in the oesophagus, will cause the cria to ingest milk into the lungs and ultimately contract pneumonia and die. There are many other examples where the prognosis is dire and the cria usually die or are euthanized soon after birth.
Belinda’s work will identify the genes that cause these distressing faults so that in the long term they can be eliminated from the alpaca gene pool.
To do this Belinda really needs DNA samples from alpacas born with these more distressing problems. Understandably breeders who have alpacas that have produced cria with these problems are reluctant to contribute DNA, concerned that having such faults identified with their stud animals could damage their reputations and businesses. Belinda guarantees complete confidentiality so that no one need ever know that an alpaca in your herd has been affected by any of the genetic faults that they are researching. Sampling live animals is very simple. The most cost effective samples for the project are small blood samples that can be taken very quickly by your vet. The tests for these samples are quick and economical and Belinda would be happy to provide kits for them. There are also DNA cheek swab tests. These are really easy to use – simply a matter of swabbing saliva from the inside of the cheek then placing the swabs into the tubes provided before posting them off to Melbourne University. The down side for the researchers is the expense of the saliva sample test kits which would place a strain on their limited budget if all the samples were gathered in this way.
Taking tests from dead animals although possibly a little distressing, is still relatively easy. Belinda asks those alpaca owners who are prepared to contribute to the research to simply provide a tissue sample. It doesn’t have to be very large and if you fell unhappy about doing this, perhaps you could ask your vet to do it. The sample can be quite small, a tiny piece of ear would do. Belinda also asks for photos showing the abnormality exhibited by the alpaca from which the DNA sample has come.
Where will all this testing lead us? In the short term it is a step in the process to develop tests for particular markers. Ultimately it will also lead to effective parentage screening.
We want Australians to be world leaders in alpacas. We aspire to being world’s best practice in all things alpaca. The International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG) recommends parentage testing for 14 genetic markers. In the US both alpaca parents are tested for 18 markers. The Australian Alpaca Breeders Association is already testing both parents. Currently, only certified males are genetic tested for AAA – and for only 10 markers which is actually inadequate for confirmation of parentage !Belinda feels that in Australia we should also be testing both parents for 18 markers.