Are genes key to vaccines?

South Dakota State University livestock researchers are trying to determine whether the genes cattle inherit help determine the way they respond to vaccinations.

“It’s often assumed that animals, and humans as well, respond uniformly to a vaccine,” says Michael Gonda, SDSU assistant professor. “In reality, there’s a lot of variation in vaccine response. Some animals respond very well and very robustly to the vaccine, other animals don’t respond at all. In fact, there is a certain fraction of the population that simply does not respond to the vaccine. One of the goals of my laboratory is to determine how much of the non-response to vaccines, or differences in response to vaccination, is actually controlled by genetics, by the animal’s own genes.”

Key Points

• Genetics may affect how animals respond to vaccines.

• SDSU research project hopes to identify key genes.

• Breeder could then select for response to medicine.


Researchers are vaccinating about 1,500 calves over a two- to three-year period. They’re using animals at the SDSU campus, Cottonwood Research Station, Antelope Research Station and the SDSU Cow Camp in Miller. In addition, the study uses a beef and a dairy research herd at North Carolina State, where some of Gonda’s collaborators work.

Scientists are vaccinating all these animals with a commercially available vaccine that protects against both types of bovine viral diarrhea, or BVD. Twenty-five to 30 days later, they are going back and measuring how the animals have responded to the vaccine —whether the response is strong, moderate or low, or if they have not responded at all.

If there is a genetic component to response to vaccination for BVD, it’s possible that the same genes would be involved, no matter what vaccine is being given. And it’s at least possible that a gene found to help regulate vaccine response in cattle could play an important role in vaccine response in other species of livestock or in humans.

“We do have some preliminary data that suggest the vaccine response is heritable,” Gonda says. “Perhaps one day livestock producers can go out and select animals that have favorable marker alleles for vaccine response, and they can make their cattle healthier.”

The South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station is funding the research.

Nixon is a writer with SDSU AgBio Communications.

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Genetics frontier: SDSU researcher Michael Gonda (front) and graduate student researcher Xin Fang (right) think genetics may affect how livestock respond to vaccines.

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.