Among the world’s most renowned scholars in the genomic and molecular study of domestic animals, Dr. Leif Andersson analyzes genes and mutations among species to understand the molecular mechanisms that affect specific underlying traits, such as gaits in horses.
Curiosity in His Genes
Dr. Leif Andersson
Modern advancements in genetic research and education have given humanity a much deeper understanding of each person’s genetic makeup and how certain traits pass down through familial lines. Still, the average person’s understanding of genetics concerns relatively cosmetic differences, such as eye color, hair type and height. But according to research conducted on domestic animals by Dr. Leif Andersson, small changes in genes can affect unbelievably complicated traits.
Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, Andersson was determined to work in nature conservation. Emboldened after reading “Silent Spring,” the controversial 1962 book by Rachel Carson accusing chemical companies of downplaying the adverse effects of pesticides on the environment, Andersson scrambled to find a job in conservation after graduation. When his search came up empty, he took a temporary position as an assistant on a genetics research project through the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, inadvertently stumbling into his lifelong passion.
What originated as a one-off job for Andersson turned into a doctorate. He soon began researching traits in domestic animals, such as the differences in horses’ coat colors. The technological limitations of the 1980s made identifying genetic differences in these animals an incredibly labor-intensive, time-demanding task. “At that time, we didn’t have access to DNA technology,” Andersson said.
With advancements in DNA technology and computing, however, Andersson’s domestic animal research took off. His studies exploring the differences between wild boars and domestic pigs, for example, gave insight into muscle development—a much-appreciated finding for breeders and the meat production industry. One of his most widely publicized findings came following a study in which he discovered that a mutation in a single gene in a horse could determine whether or not they could pace, or move both legs on the same side at once.
“My first reaction when I saw that there was only one major gene determining that trait was that there had to be something wrong with the data,” Andersson said. “It was amazing to see such a complex trait have such a simple genetic basis.”
Though he accepted a Fellow position at the Hagler Institute in 2013 and elected to take on a permanent position at Texas A&M, Andersson still calls Sweden home and conducts research both in College Station and at the University of Uppsala more than 5,000 miles away. His work at Texas A&M currently revolves around studying chickens, but he has an idea for a future project that might interest a few Aggie drill sergeants. “Now that we’ve discovered a gene that influences a horse’s gait, maybe we should collaborate with the Corps of Cadets, study Fish that have trouble synchronizing their arms and legs, and see if a similar mutation is to blame!” he joked.
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