It’s not just about mooo-ving herds, or perfected grain.

The contemporary animal science field charges beyond traditional animal production tactics to focus on biologically-driven animal health research, according to Dave Gerrard, head of Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences department.

Studying animal health—such as muscle biology, genetics, reproduction, nutrition, and physiology—contributes to better animal well-being, but also provides an excellent foundation for studying human health, Gerrard says.  The evolution of the field is in line with Virginia Tech’s push to become an academic front runner in the health sciences.

A team of animal science researchers focusing on health and disease were purposefully hired to the Animal and Poultry Sciences department in the last two years, according to Gerrard.  Placental biologist Alan Ealy studies how various physiologic, metabolic and environmental stresses during early pregnancy impacts reproduction in cows and sheep, and uses it as a model for understanding similar processes in humans.

“Embryonic and fetal development is remarkably similar between cattle, sheep and humans, and exploring various developmental processes and events will provide us with clues into how we may optimize neonatal and lifetime health in humans and efficiency of production in livestock,” Ealy said.

Meanwhile, new hire Shelly Rhoads studies how adolescent obesity affects pigs—particularly during reproduction— with the expectation that it will provide some insight into human childhood obesity. In other words, if one gets fat before puberty, how will that affect reproductive success?

“Pig and human physiologies are very similar,” said Rhoads. “A pig is more similar to humans than traditional lab mice.”

Early results in the pig model show that what a pregnant mother eats, rather than how much she weighs, has a greater impact on reproductive success. Diets composed of a high amount of the sugars fructose and glucose (typically found in soft drinks) have a greater impact than fatty tissue, Rhoads said.

Other research topics among the new hires include the use of stem cells to fix suspensory ligaments in race horses and the neurobiology of appetite in chickens.

 “We are using top-end science to solve problems pertinent to agriculture and human medicine,” Gerrard said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where these cutting-edge approaches take us.

Researcher and students stand in pig pen in Blacksburg, VA.
Blacksburg, Va.– Shelly Rhoads and her graduate students study the health of pigs.