Exploration of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to improve animal welfare by mean of genetic selection : lessons from the South African merino
CITATION: Hough, D., Swart, P. & Cloete, S. 2013. Exploration of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to improve animal welfare by mean of genetic selection : lessons from the South African merino. Animals, 3(2):442-474, doi:10.3390/ani3020442.
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It is a difficult task to improve animal production by means of genetic selection, if the environment does not allow full expression of the animal’s genetic potential. This concept may well be the future for animal welfare, because it highlights the need to incorporate traits related to production and robustness, simultaneously, to reach sustainable breeding goals. This review explores the identification of potential genetic markers for robustness within the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA), since this axis plays a vital role in the stress response. If genetic selection for superior HPAA responses to stress is possible, then it ought to be possible to breed robust and easily managed genotypes that might be able to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions whilst expressing a high production potential. This approach is explored in this review by means of lessons learnt from research on Merino sheep, which were divergently selected for their multiple rearing ability. These two selection lines have shown marked differences in reproduction, production and welfare, which makes this breeding programme ideal to investigate potential genetic markers of robustness. The HPAA function is explored in detail to elucidate where such genetic markers are likely to be found.