Dr. Mika Asai-Coakwell (PhD) in the lab. (Photo: Christina Weese)

Unlocking the genetic mysteries behind beef

Dr. Mika Asai-Coakwell (PhD) shares her passion about genetics.

By Jane Caulfield

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to several prime-time dramas, getting a career in forensics went through a bit of a revitalization. And for Asai-Coakwell, who had just completed an undergraduate degree in biology and archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), the idea of using science to solve a mystery was exciting.

“I wanted to gain experience working in a DNA lab after my degree, so that’s when I approached the animal and poultry science department and talked to Dr. Sheila Schmutz,” she said. “I worked as a summer student and then as a grad student and thought I would go on and work for the RCMP or something similar.”

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science, Asai-Coakwell said that the work she did during her master’s degree on cattle genetics, also at USask, showed her a whole new world of mysteries to be solved.

“When I started the research, I totally fell in love with that part of the work,” she said. “When you’re looking at genes, you’re still solving a puzzle. Maybe even one that you didn’t know was there. That’s when the crime fighting dreams turned into dreams of gene discovery.”

From ocular genetics to bovine genetics

After completing her PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology  in Zurich, Switzerland, Asai-Coakwell returned to Canada, landing in Edmonton with her husband who was stationed as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. While there, she took on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta, conducting research on ocular genetics. She said that while it may not be an obvious jump from eyes to cows, it was a doorway towards her current work in livestock genetics.

“The group of genes that I was working on in ocular genetics is heavily involved in different aspects of livestock genetics. So, it just carries over as an overarching family of genes – it’s really quite fascinating,” she said. “That’s really the beauty of DNA – it spans across species. If there’s a gene that’s really important in a developmental pathway, it will most often be the same gene across all mammalian species, if not across all vertebrates.” 

Currently, Asai-Coakwell is working on a couple of research projects that seek to understand the genetics behind specific traits of beef cattle and ultimately support producers. One project examines variations in gestational length in cows.

“We want to identify the areas in the cattle genome that are associated with that trait and understand what causes the differences,” she said.

From a practical perspective, an extra-long gestational period can lead to calves growing too big, causing birthing problems and higher cow/calf mortality rates. A gestational period that is too short can lead to really weak offspring. 

“We hope that this work can directly benefit our producers in this province,” she said. “We hope this new information can help them better plan and establish herds that rely on that perfect combination between sire and cow that will lead to the establishment of healthy gestation periods.” 

Another project in the works sets out to discover and examine what genetic traits lead to overall efficiency of a cow.

“We want to know what genetic traits highlight how one cow is much better than another – from how they forage to successfully birthing healthy calves every year,” she said. “What’s really interesting is that these cows can be on the same pasture and are getting pregnant from the same sire every year. So, what’s causing these differences?”

She said this project is collaborative in nature, leading to exceptional opportunities for researchers across the college to work together.

“When looking at efficiency, you can’t just look at genetics. There’s nutrition, there’s physiology, there’s the environment, there’s the gut microbiome, and there’s herd management – genetics is just a small part of it,” she said. “This means that we have to collaborate, and that’s really exciting.”

Asai-Coakwell. (Photo: Christina Weese)

For the love of research with impact

Asai-Coakwell said that while the work she does has academic implications, she finds a lot of reward in knowing that her research also has meaningful real-world applications.

“Genetics for beef cattle is really relevant for Saskatchewan. We have a lot of cow/calf producers across the province and that’s really where we need to have that research in that area,” she said. “Beef cattle genetics and looking at the variations of the DNA associated with traits such as muscle and bone growth has economically important implications.”

Asai-Coakwell and her team looks to work with industry experts and producers to help them understand their herds better, plan accordingly, and cultivate success.

“They see their animals every day, they know exactly what I am talking about. It’s not a huge step for them to go down and think about how it’s working at a genetic level because they see it at the whole animal level,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to have the ability to see that our results can be implemented into a test that will ultimately improve the industry.”

This kind of real-world application isn’t limited to Saskatchewan’s borders and can lead to long-term changes to the beef industry around the world. 

“We might not think of livestock genetics as having a global impact, but part of my role is to demystify genetics. Livestock molecular genetics might sound scary, but what we’re really talking about is breeding and selection,” she said. “This kind of domestication of these kinds of animals is the hallmark of civilization and what people have been doing for thousands of years. Breeding and genetics just go hand-in-hand.”

She said the difference between now and then is the technology. While historically, selection and breeding may have been done by certain visual or behavioural traits, scientists and producers alike can now dig a bit deeper to enhance their breeding programs. 

“The advancement with our technologies has given us the ability to look at the molecular part of it – the genome. And connect a specific part of the genome to a specific trait and select towards the desirable ones. That’s global because selection and domestication is found on every continent where there’s humans.” 

It might also be a way to ensure the industry can remain successful throughout changing and uncertain times.

“With this technology, we’ve been able to select at a faster rate. With increasing populations and the evidence behind a changing climate, I think it’s more important than ever to really focus on the genes and the genomic regions that are going to allow us to produce livestock efficiently,” she said. “That’s relevant in Saskatchewan, in Canada and globally. It’s going to play a huge role in our food security because we are going to need to provide enough food in a safe, sustainable, and nutritious way that is also competitive and profitable.”

Teaching the next generation 

Asai-Coakwell’s enthusiasm for genetics and her research is infectious – something that makes her an exceptional educator within the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. And it’s another part of the job that she loves.

“It’s so rewarding to see that next generation of scientists and to train them. I’ve been really fortunate to have great graduate students who are inquisitive, they’re enthusiastic, and they’re learning so much.”

By working alongside grad students and other curious individuals, her natural (and infectious) excitement for science and genetics continues to grow. It’s a trait she believes is necessary when teaching, especially when you’re teaching complex ideas and complicated scientific processes.

“I want to ignite this passion for molecular genetics for my undergraduates,” she said. “Part of that is being able to show how passionate I am for science and how interested I am in trying to answer these questions or creating new questions that we can answer.”


Agknowledge, Fall 2021