ILRI / LiveGene

Up close with Biotech: Improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02)

Up close with Biotech, is a blog series that will feature frequently asked questions about the Biotech theme at ILRI. In this series you will get to know more about our research teams:

  • Improving livestock disease control and product safety (BT01)
  • Improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02)
  • Improving utilization of farm animal genetics resources (BT03)

You will get to know about our projects and also the people behind the projects.

In our initial series we feature the BT02 theme.

Improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02)

The improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02) team’s work underpins the work of other teams in the Theme, but also pursues its own areas of research. Led by Steve Kemp, this team has about 12 people who include molecular geneticists, scientists, research technicians and support staff based at ILRI and collaborating institutes.

The goal of the this team is to use molecular and genomics tools to understand livestock diversity and gene function as well as to identify pathogens from complex biological samples.

Frequently Asked Questions

 1. What does the improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02) team do?

This team uses a number of core ‘genomic’ technologies to study both livestock and pathogens in order to improve understanding on how livestock adapt to the environment and to disease.

2. What activities is the team engaged in?

In addition to technical support in the areas of vaccine development and diagnostics, the team works on projects that fall into two broad categories,
1. Studying the mechanisms of resistance to trypanosomiasis in cattle and exploring ways to use this knowledge to improve productivity.
2. Studying pathogen genomics to develop systems for detecting new diseases and gaining a more detailed analysis of variation within known disease-causing organisms. This in-turn provides information for those making diagnostic tools and tracking diseases as they emerge and spread.

Did you know: Genomics is a discipline in genetics concerning the study of the genomes of organisms. The field includes intensive efforts to determine the entire DNA sequence of organisms and creating genetic maps. The genome is the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information. It is encoded either in DNA or, for many types of virus, in RNA. The genome includes both the genes and the non-coding sequences of the DNA/RNA.


3. What is host genetic diversity?

As part of studies of livestock genetic make-up, and in collaboration with the improving utilization of farm animal genetic resources (BT03) team, BT02 is building-up an understanding of the variations among the unique indigenous African cattle breeds. These indigenous breeds offer a pool of variation that will allow animal breeders to respond to changing requirements, perhaps associated with climate change or changing market demands. 

4. Why is genetics important in fighting animal diseases?

Genomic tools allow us to screen disease-causing organisms for potential vaccine components, to study variation in the livestock immune system to ensure that vaccines will work in the types of animals in use by poor farmers, and to develop improved, more sensitive and more specific diagnostic tools.

5. What is the nature of the diseases that the team work on?

The diseases we are interested in are caused by vector-transmitted pathogens, and we are working on understanding the natural resistance mechanisms in livestock. For example, the N’dama cattle breed is resistant to the effects of infection with trypanosomes and we have identified some of the gene variation that is responsible for this which can help in the control of trypanosome infections.

6a. what facilities and resources does the team make use of?

Among the facilities we use include bio-banking, Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) and the genomics workbench among.

b. Why is bio-banking important in research?

It is very important that biological samples are properly recorded, stored and made available to collaborators so that we can use them efficiently. Samples are expensive to collect and if they can be used by different researchers for different studies, we not only save money but we build a more complete picture of the sample; the results of one study can assist in the interpretation of another.

7. Why are experimental studies carried out on mice as opposed to other rodents?

Most of our work is with livestock or field samples, but sometimes mice are used for testing hypotheses and for developing a ‘different view’ of genetic variation. By looking at the differences between mouse strains and comparing them to the differences between cattle strains we build a picture of the range of variation in an organism. Mice are very well characterised and there is a range of well-defined mouse breeds with excellent molecular tools to study them. They are also inexpensive and have a fast reproductive cycle, which greatly accelerates research progress.

8. What are the major ongoing projects that the team is carrying out?

The major projects we are working in are;

  1. The genetic basis of natural resistance to trypanosomiasis in N’Dama cattle
  2. The use of exogenous genes to confer resistance to susceptible animals
  3. Arbovirus Incidence and Diversity


Meet the team leader!


Steve Kemp is a molecular geneticist who is interested in the mechanisms of innate resistance to disease in livestock and mouse models. He is a visiting scientist at ILRI and Professor of molecular genetics at the University of Liverpool, UK. Steve’s current research covers pathogen diversity as well as host genome diversity and adaptations to biotic and abiotic factors. This involves interest in livestock diversity in its own right as a potential resource for future needs as well as study of functional variants associated with disease resistance traits. He is particularly interested in the opportunities presented by modern informatics, geospatial and molecular tools to explore genome function using large and diverse data sets derived from livestock populations

Over the last few year’s Steve and his team have been working on identifying the gene that causes trypanosomosis in cattle and sleeping sickness in human beings. This study has lead to a recent breakthrough in the identification of a trypanosome resistant gene.

Click on the below links to read about this amazing discovery:

Scientists identify livestock genes to unlock protection against one of Africa’s oldest animal plagues

New science’ is ‘networked science’: The data-crunching workflows and pipelines behind a recent gene discovery

For more information contact s.kemp(at)cgiar.org

You might also want to read: Up close with Biotech: Improving livestock disease control and product safety (vaccines and diagnostics), BT01

Photo credit: For gene image, David White, duckrabbit

One thought on “Up close with Biotech: Improving characterization of livestock and pathogens (BT02)

  1. Biotechnology is unravelling mysteries that made it impossible to understand mechanisms sorrounded disease in Livestock. We are headed right direction. Kudos Steve Kemp, A stones throw to get rid of the Zoonotic disease. Dr. Bateri

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