To call Max Rothschild a swine geneticist is too confining. Scratch the surface and you find so much more. He talks about making agriculture students better citizens of the world; humanitarian efforts like providing livestock and livelihoods to the poorest people; committing to a job with meaning and doing the right thing. “I’ve always thought that we should do jobs that matter in the world. If we can help feed people, that has a long-term effect,” he says.
It’s not a stretch to say that Rothschild was destined to become an animal geneticist. “I’m an identical twin, so I always thought a bit about genetics,” he admits. When the boys were 7, their father, a chemist in the aerospace industry, brought home some guinea pigs. “They multiplied rapidly, and the coat colors fascinated me. I became interested in coat-color genetics and that led to animal genetics.”
Born in the Midwest, Rothschild grew up in Southern California. He attended the University of California-Davis, where he got a “great education, and met my wife, Denise,” he says, fondly. From there, he headed to the University of Wisconsin for a master’s degree and his foray into swine genetics. In 1978, Cornell University awarded him a PhD. His first job was working on dairy cattle genetics at the University of Maryland.
For the past 30 years Rothschild has been at Iowa State University focusing his research mostly on pigs but also shrimp, dogs, sheep and horses. In 1993, he added USDA Swine Genome Coordinator to his resume, bringing with it new challenges and responsibilities.
Q: What is your role as USDA Swine Genome Coordinator?
A: I was chosen through a competitive process, with five-year renewals. My primary role, and it’s changed over time, is to serve as a cheerleader/facilitator with other research units — in the United States and abroad — to get the information about the genome. I get a small amount of money, which I then use to create reagents and tools that allow other institutions to help facilitate gene identification, then gene mapping and later with the sequencing effort.
Q: What’s the status of the swine genome project?
A: When we first started, we had a linkage map of 50 genes. Now we know the sequence, or the ultimate genetic map, and while we don’t have it perfectly understood, we have 95 percent to 98 percent of the genomic sequences in draft forms. That allows us to know where all those genes are in the genome, on what chromosomes and what their order is.
But maps don’t get you all the way there. The science has changed greatly in the last five or six years. We now have a SNIP Chip, which stands for single nucleotide polymorphism, and it allows us to go from genotyping one or two genes at a time to 50,000 genetic markers at once.
Q: Can you offer an example?
A: I’m projecting that eventually we’ll create designer genetic programs, where you select a special corn or soybean that’s been genetically developed, feed it to a special pig and it produces a specialized product. It might be a perfect ham or an animal that’s more apt to be disease resistant.
For niche markets, I think we’ll see genetics used to produce specialized meat products like this in 10 years. For commodity pork, these genetic tools can help by increasing efficiency at all levels — more pigs, better feed efficiency, less manure produced.
Q: How many people are working on the genome project worldwide?
A: There are 20 primary labs worldwide, so less than 100 people. Some of that work is directed toward understanding the pig as a model for human biology in such areas as obesity, cardiology and transplantation. Of course, much of the work involves genetic improvement of the species for production purposes. We’re the last major production species to have the draft of the sequence, so in that sense we’re a little behind. But with the new SNIP Chip, we’re even with the other species.
Q: What’s been the most applicable part to date?
A: Because of work to identify individual genes, about 75 percent of pigs produced in the United States are the result of gene tests that our Iowa State lab produced. Gene tests for litter size, growth rate, backfat and meat quality are all publicly available now, and any breeding company can use them to select better pigs. That’s a big change from where they were a few years ago.
We’ve picked the relatively low-hanging fruit so far; we’ve learned a bunch of genes that have big effects. We’re making good strides, but we have much more to learn because we’re treating those genes as individual genes. We know that genes interact with other genes in the genome. So we have the sequence and the SNIP Chip, and those new tools let us look at gene pathways and networks, and try to understand the biology of the pig better so we can more carefully breed animals that would fit more specific needs.
Q: What about perceptions that this is “Frankenstein science”?
A: If you look at corn and soybeans, most of those are transgenics. They’ve taken a gene from some other plant and put it into the species of interest. We don’t do that.
In the pig, we’re most interested in gene identification, so we’re identifying genes that already exist naturally in pigs. We’ll select to increase the frequency of the good form of those genes in breeding stock and create better animals. That’s just selective breeding using better tools.
I don’t have any problem with transgenic plants. I think we’re going to need transgenic crops to increase future production levels.
Q: What more is there to learn from the genome project?
A: You can view this as we’re working on a small jigsaw puzzle. Just as we put in the last piece, we get the sequence. Now, we realize that our little jigsaw puzzle is just one piece of another bigger jigsaw puzzle.
That’s both the difficulty and the fun part of this job. There’s an enormous amount of work to do to understand more clearly what genes do, how they interact, how they produce the product that we’re interested in.
Science offers a bunch of building blocks and we’ve built a pretty good platform. Now we can start building the rest of the building. I constantly tell students, you have to be looking for opportunities.
Nothing is ever done; there’s always something more to do that will improve our industry, our product, the people we work with.
Q: What would you still like to accomplish?
A: In the next five years, I would like to see more gene discovery and put it in the public domain to improve genetic testing in pigs. That might be for disease resistance or reproduction; we’re working on sow longevity as well.
I also want to do something for underdeveloped countries, helping people feed themselves. I’m working on a project in Uganda that I’m really excited about.
Q: What is that project?
A: I’m in charge of the livestock portion for the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods that Iowa State University created, thanks to a gift from a very generous donor. There are several parts, and for livestock distribution we have a model very similar to Heifer International, where people can donate to help purchase livestock.
The amazing thing is when you go back to a place and you see a change in the families. The kids no longer have bloated stomachs and are going to school. There’s a saying that you save the world one family at a time, and you really get that feeling.
Q: You just returned from China; what should U.S. producers know?
A: China has changed; it’s no longer a developing country. There are 1.5 billion people and pork plays a large role in their diet. China will be a big pork producer, but we hope also a big pork importer.
The long-term question for us is, are we going to be among the lowest cost producers? For a variety of reasons we’ve got to keep working at it, and genetics will be part of the help.
Q: What’s your greatest satisfaction so far?
A: Some of the gene discoveries that my students have made. The fact that 75 percent of the pigs produced in the United States are the result of those gene tests, that’s pretty satisfying.
The other satisfaction is having such bright students to work with. My goal is to find people who are much brighter than I am and want to work at least as hard. When they make a discovery and that light turns on in their eyes, it feels terrific. When you get people excited about the work they do, it’s tremendous. It doesn’t have to be genetics or swine production. When you find people who want to work, they like what they’re doing and have bright ideas, it’s infectious.
Q: What’s your greatest disappointment?
A: That some of my best ideas weren’t funded. There’s just never enough money. Now every industry will say that. Pork execs will read that and say, “poor guy doesn’t have enough money.” But like them, if I want to succeed and do something for other people in the industry, I need some fuel and fuel is money, bright students and good ideas.
Long-term, the money has to come from both private and public sectors. We need what I call pre-competitive consortiums of people, so the work is not driven by intellectual property; rather, it creates the building blocks. There needs to be an investment in people that convert basic research to applications as quickly as possible.
Q: What’s the pork industry’s greatest challenge?
A: The biggest problem genetically is finding disease resistance genes. I’m involved in a project that Dr. Joan Lunney has started to find PRRS resistance. That’s a perfect example of scientists from a variety of institutions working together. I’m optimistic when I see those kinds of collaborations.
Q: What advice would you offer pork executives?
A: I tell people in leadership to look for bright people and good ideas, provide them enough time to think — and do the right thing. If we make those judgments, we generally do a good job for ourselves, our employees and our industry.