Advanced Computing Systems

By Dr Grant Walling, JSR Genetics - The philosophy of 18th Century agriculturalist Robert Bakewell was to ‘breed from the best’, a strategy with which even modern day genetics companies will still be able to identify.
calendar icon 6 January 2007
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During the last 200 years the biggest change has been in the tools used to identify, store and process data on the best animals. The evolution of the computing industry has occurred at a far faster pace than that of the various pig breeds. Back in November 1971 Intel released its first microprocessor, the 4004. It ran at 108KHz, contained 2,300 transistors and could execute 0.06 million instructions per second (MIPS).

In contrast, the latest Intel Xeon processors run at 3.8GHz, contain in excess of 5.5 million transistors and can handle over 300 MIPS. A several thousand fold improvement in all areas. Similar rates of progress in pig growth over the 35 years would mean that pigs would reach slaughter weight less than three hours after being born!

The real benefit of these technological advances however is in the computational and storage power of the modern computer. The academic work of Henderson in the late 1960s and early 1970s gave animal breeders statistical methodology to design advanced breeding programmes using mixed model equations for the best linear unbiased prediction (BLUP) of breeding values. Due to the complex nature of these calculations this was impossible to achieve on large populations due to the limitations of computing capacity.

Now, JSR can produce solutions for greater than 500,000 equations for more than 150,000 animals across 20 generations of breeding in a single analysis, which represents only a single population in one breeding company. Scaling this up to account for multiple populations per breeding company and then all breeding companies, starts to highlight the importance of computational power to the pig industry.

Computer systems however can only process the data and instructions that they are given. The other aspect of breeding success has been the ability to digitally store and therefore analyse data from huge numbers of animals. The move from paper records to advanced electronic databases allows selection decisions to be made on hundreds of thousands of animals rather than the simplistic approach of pedigree breeders who typically bias all decisions on the performance of the animal alone. Every event associated with an individual animal can now be logged and analysed. This may include the simple measure of growth rate through to complex measure of marbling after slaughter.

The result of the investment in technology is greater rates of genetic progress and an ability to influence a greater number of traits. The coupling of the increasingly global nature of the breeding business with information technology now allows the performance of an animal in one country to influence the selection of an animal in another.

So when will the industry have all the computational power that they need? The answer is difficult to estimate. Academics continue to develop new techniques and statistical advances to use the available technology. These advances have lead to JSR developing ‘Select’ a powerful future proof database to run statistical evaluations of any collected data through any analysis programme available. The lack of fixed data formatting makes the database highly adaptable to any change in the genetics industry.

Whilst the future is difficult to foretell, our knowledge of genetics does allow us to predict that those who are slowest to adapt are the most likely to become extinct.

Published in International Pig Topics - Volume 22 Number 1

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