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Pushing boundaries

JH3As the population increases so does the need for more food. The resources needed to support the agricultural sector such as land, water and energy aren’t enough to meet demand so we need to look at the plants and animals themselves. Breeding programmes which selectively target advantageous traits can increase the efficiency and sustainability of plants and animals, putting less strain on the resources needed to feed a growing global population.

Professor John Hickey is a quantitative geneticist working on the development and application of quantitative genetics methods and computational approaches for animal and plant breeding programmes. He started his academic career at Wageningen University & Research Centre, Lelystad, The Netherlands, where he completed his PhD before taking up post-doctoral appointments at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, and CIMMYT – The International Maize & Wheat Improvement Centre, Mexico.

The Q&A

What scientific questions are you currently addressing? And how are you tackling them?

I work on the development of methods and strategies to improve animal and plant breeding programmes. These programmes help farmers breed populations with advantageous characteristics, thus increasing their productivity and sustainability.

How did you become interested in this field of work?

I grew up on a farm in Ireland where, among other things, we bred sheep using traditional methods. At university I became aware of more modern methods and wanted to learn more about them, which lead me to pursue post-graduate studies in quantitative genetics and animal breeding.

Why is your research important? Where will it have the greatest impact?

The world population will grow to more than 9 billion people by 2050 and the proportion of people living in poverty is expected to decline. As people rise out of poverty they will eat healthier diets which will include increasing amounts of animal protein. The efficiency and sustainability of agriculture needs to be increased significantly if we are to produce the amounts of food required, and breeding technologies can assist this. I hope that my research can improve animal and plant breeding programmes and contribute to increase the efficiency and sustainability of global agriculture so that many more people can experience the type of lifestyle that we enjoy in advanced economies such as the UK.

How long have you been at the Institute? What drew you to The Roslin Institute?

I came to The Roslin Institute almost three years ago in June of 2013. I was attracted to Roslin because the UK has long been a centre of excellence in livestock breeding, and Edinburgh in particular, is a world-renowned centre of excellence in scientific animal breeding, and quantitative and molecular genetics.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

 I enjoy many aspects but my favourite part is brainstorming with colleagues at the whiteboard in my office. Science often has the reputation of not being a creative endeavour, but I would disagree. It is creativity that pushes science forward.

Are there any advantages of working at a research institute compared with other research environments?

All types of research environments have advantages. At The Roslin Institute I am supported to determine the direction of my research programme, I have access to great core-funded infrastructures, and I am surrounded by brilliant scientists!

What would you say is your greatest scientific achievement so far?

During my post-doc I developed an algorithm and piece of software that has been widely implemented in the global pig and poultry breeding industries. This algorithm removed a key barrier to the adoption of genomic selection in these industries and thus enabled rapid changes in the rate of genetic improvement in pigs and chickens produced by farmers.

What discovery would most revolutionise your field?

The ability to manipulate recombination at will.

Do you have any advice to offer future scientists?

Work hard, read a lot, and stay very focussed.

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