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Researchers build epigenetics network in veterinary and animal sciences

UCalgary's Chinju Therese Johnson, Jacob Thundathil working with colleagues around province to further fledgling field

Researchers from around Alberta recently gathered at a University of Calgary-hosted one-day symposium on epigenetics in veterinary and animal sciences.

Jacob Thundathil, associate professor in Production Animal Health at University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Chinju Therese Johnson, a veterinarian and master's student at UCVM, is working with colleagues around the province to help further the field of epigenetics.

As the study of epigenetics grows and more scholars investigate the role of environmental factors in “turning on” genes in everything from stress in plants to tumours in humans, researchers at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) are working with colleagues around the province to help further the field of epigenetics in veterinary and animal sciences.

“Epigenetics is a relatively new term in the livestock industry, and its importance needs to be emphasised,” says Dr. Chinju Therese Johnson, a veterinarian and masters student at UCVM. She works with Dr. Jacob Thundathil, associate professor in Production Animal Health, studying the effects of nutrition, heat stress and sperm proteins on bovine fertility.

Epigenetics play an important role in fertility

“Recent research has shown that, in addition to genetics, epigenetics can play a very important role in fertility and has great potential as markers for assessing fertility,” says Johnson, who spent a month getting hands-on training in epigenetics working at the Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) facility of Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, University of Lethbridge.

“The facility has qualified NGS experts and biostatisticians who helped me understand the techniques starting from the basics,” says Johnson. “For a student with a veterinary background, these techniques are new and require more in-depth understanding.” Johnson’s month in Lethbridge was funded by the Alberta Epigenetics Network (AEN) to “encourage more inter-university collaboration and research in the area of epigenetics,” she says.

Epigenetics symposium brought together researchers from three Alberta universities

To help further this sort of collaboration, UVCM recently hosted a one-day symposium on epigenetics in veterinary and animal sciences. UCalgary researchers were joined by colleagues from the universities of Alberta and Lethbridge, administrators from Genome Alberta, AEN and MITACS. 

“Presentations and interactive sessions by several participants gave us all a clear understanding of ongoing research, and stimulated discussions on identifying the opportunities and needs for training our graduate students in epigenetics research,” says Thundathil, the symposium co-chair. “Moreover, the event provided trainees an opportunity to interact with their peers and experts from their respective areas of study and receive feedback on their projects.”

Working together and sharing resources in epigenetic research will help advance the field. “The knowledge I gained in Lethbridge will help me expand my area of expertise from traditional semen evaluation techniques to the latest NGS technology for evaluating the effect of pre- and post-natal diet on bulls,” says Johnson. “This will help me further expand my research in multiple areas rather than restrict it to a narrow one.”