We talked with Maria Jensen and Andrew Lessey of Antler Bio on the key differences between genomics and epigenomics and how their innovative solution informs on-farm management and breeding strategies for the livestock industry.
Please tell us a bit about your experience and how you founded Antler Bio.
I'm Maria. I'm from Finland. That's where everything started. I was a cell biologist, and I had a business idea to create epigenomic testing for horses. I ended up in Newmarket, which is the horse racing capital of Europe, attending the December mare auctions. There I met some of the world's top breeders and trainers of horses. When I pitched my business idea to them, I gained a lot of positive feedback. Some of the breeders were using DNA testing, but they were not happy with the service. They understood that they can have a genetically perfect race horse, but it's never going to win the race unless they feed and train it right. They knew that environmental factors play a huge role in the performance of the animals.
Fast forward a few years, I started my first company in Finland focusing on horse genomics. We did a pilot, looking at the RNA, the gene expression, in horses and racehorses with a top breeder in Sweden. From there, we got investments from the breeder and were getting good results and then Covid hit.
We had to diversify, which was an opportunity to take our technology that had been proven in horses and apply it to other species. I had good contacts in the dairy industry. A single dairy cow can generate a fifty-thousand-euro profit for the farmer during its lifetime. They are valuable animals. There is also the opportunity to improve sustainability and animal welfare using big data from the animals.
That expansion was when Andrew joined the team. We secured UK grant financing and created a prototype, which is almost ready to launch.
So, Andrew, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I completed my bio veterinary science degree at the Royal Veterinary College in London and completed a PhD in developmental genetics, then worked for six years for an x-ray medical device manufacturer.
One day, I was browsing LinkedIn and I saw a job opening linked to gene expression and race horses. I have a passion for horse racing. I jumped in feet first to reinvent how we consider the big data of gene expression and how it can be used to improve animal performance. And not only performance, but affect the wider societal impacts of greenhouse gases, animal welfare, and for consumers, given that everyone is experiencing a price squeeze now, especially on the cost of basics like milk.
Can you explain how the science of epigenomics is applied in your solution?
Andrew Lessey: Genetics is complex and it's only predictive, while managing performance requires constant fine-tuning. That process is difficult with genetics because an animal’s genetic sequence doesn't change throughout its lifetime.
Our approach is different from genomics. We measure the expression, meaning the activity, of key genes within the animal so we can understand how those genes affect certain phenotypic traits such as milk yield and fertility. We also work to understand how to naturally influence that gene expression to improve the performance of animals, not just through breeding strategies, but also through on-farm management, which has a much faster impact on optimizing performance.
Maria Jensen: One thing that differentiates us from other research on gene expression and animal genomics is that we capture a lot of phenotypic data on the animals. We have a lot of data from the cows about their feed, intake, environment, and from milking robots. We couple that data with the analysis of gene expression and use machine learning to validate the insights. Then, we deliver scientifically robust information to the farmer in an easy-to-understand format.
For example, factors like feed, hygiene, environment can be picked up as signals in the data. Once we had our first big batch of data, which is now one of the world's largest RNA datasets for Holstein dairy cattle, we saw other signals for things like dehydration. We can use these signals to identify when herds should get nutritional supplements to enhance productivity and the quality of the milk.
Can you unpack how your solution improves sustainability for the dairy industry?
Andrew Lessey: For current herd efficiency, we use gene expression to monitor the output performance of an animal compared to its potential. Farmers use the information to optimize the animals to be as productive and as healthy as they can be, because healthy cows produce more and better milk. Future efficiency is improved by using our technology to guide breeding strategies and to identify the best calves and heifers to introduce into the farm’s herd.
As the farmer improves efficiency, there's less wasted inputs and it takes fewer animals to produce the same amount of milk or more milk. Fewer animals mean less land used for growing feed and lower greenhouse gas emissions. We're also studying how epigenomic markers affect the quality of the milk, not just quantity.
How does your solution support better animal welfare?
Andrew Lessey: One of the most evident things we’ve found is that happy cows produce not only more milk, but better milk. We know that because we can measure inflammatory and stress markers, showing when the animal is unhappy about something that might not be evident to the farmer and certainly wouldn't be identified by genomics alone. Farmers can then address potential causes of that stress or inflammation. Although cows can't tell us that they're healthier, those inflammatory and stress markers subside, and their performance improves. Whether that is more milk, higher quality milk, or improved fertility, all those outcomes are possible by reducing stress and inflammation within the animal.
What is in the future for Antler Bio?
Maria Jensen: Currently we are working with early adopters. Going forward, we want to scale with in-house lab sequencing capabilities. Something we've done very well already is leveraging grants. We’ve doubled every investment we have received with grant funding.
The grants we applied for were based on the horse data and our vision of transitioning to the livestock industry. Now, we have proof of the concept from the dairy industry, which will accelerate launching to the dairy sector.
Andrew Lessey: There is also the potential to partner with commercial entities looking at the effects of nutrition feed supplementation and dairy cows. Our technology is also species agnostic. So, we will translate our technology to any species. It's just a case of being able to capture the data set in both the gene expression samples and phenotypic data. Once we're established with dairy cows, an easy transition would be beef cattle.
Learn more about Antler Bio and how their data-driven epigenomics solution can improve productivity, fertility, and welfare for livestock. The interview was edited for length.