Symposium on genetic selection to reduce the impact of infectious diseases

February 13, 2024

On Friday March 1st, the WIAS symposium “Genetic selection to reduce the impact of infectious diseases in livestock” on behalf of the PhD defence of Dries Hulst, PhD candidate at Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology (QVE) and Animal Breeding and Genomics (ABG) will take place in FORUM.

Selective breeding for disease resistance can play a significant role in reducing disease losses in livestock populations, particularly now that preventive administration of antibiotics is generally considered an undesirable option. However, its applicability is presently limited by insufficient understanding of resistance mechanisms and genetic correlations, which is why it is important to develop breeding techniques that will increase resistance to diseases without compromising production efficiency or product quality.

The WIAS symposium "Genetic selection to reduce the impact of infectious diseases in livestock" will provide scientists that are interested in selective breeding for disease resistance with valuable network opportunities and help them stay up-to-date on the latest research in their field. Speakers from international research institutes and breeding companies will attend the symposium. (More information about the speakers and the topics that will be discussed can be found in the program.)

The final speaker at the symposium is Dries Hulst, who will afterwards defend his PhD thesis. We asked Dries a few questions about his thesis and how he experienced the research process.

Can you explain what your thesis is about?

"Certainly! Infectious diseases form a continuous threat to the health and welfare of animals in agriculture. Several interventions, such as vaccination, exist to combat infectious diseases. Genetic selection of the animals to make them less susceptible to infections is also considered a promising intervention. The current approach in animal breeding to select for lower infection susceptibility, however, purely focusses on the individual animal, ignoring the fact that infections are transmitted from animal to animal in populations. My thesis shows that by ignoring the transmission of infections, breeders miss a considerable part of the heritable variation. Thereby, the potential of genetic selection to reduce the impact of infectious diseases in livestock populations is much larger than previously believed."

Pursuing a PhD is an exciting but challenging experience. Can you share an example of a challenge or limitation that you encountered in your research? How did you address or mitigate this challenge?

"I think the biggest challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an overnight shift from working at the office fulltime to working from home, and we didn’t have proper facilities at the time. Luckily, my research could be performed from home, although I did have to get used to the new working environment. (But then again, everyone did.) Currently, I am actually quite happy that I have the ability to work from home. And I must confess that the COVID-period also was a fascinating time, probably for everyone at QVE or anyone working on infectious diseases."

Most PhD candidates will acknowledge that a knowledgeable and supportive supervisor is an essential component of their success in the program. Are you happy with the guidance and mentorship you received throughout your research process? How has the guidance and feedback you’ve received throughout your research process influence the development and refinement of your thesis?

"Yes, having motivating supervisors was essential, especially because my research focused on a quite specific and challenging topic. I had supervisors from two different fields, which could be challenging at times because they didn’t always speak the same ‘language’; in discussions there would sometimes be misunderstandings. But then again, as a young scientist, I learned a lot from the discussions AND from clarifying these misunderstandings. Also, discussions with my supervisors were often broader than my PhD-project, and talking about other topics has helped me to better understand and oversee the field."

Now that you’ve completed your thesis, what are your aspirations or future plans in terms of applying your research findings or pursuing further studies in this field?

"Since my PhD concerned mostly theoretical work, the big challenge now is to put my research findings into practice. My plan is to work for four more years as a postdoc at WUR and collaborate with partners from the animal breeding industry. The aim is to provide them with the tools they need to bring the large potential of genetic selection against infectious diseases into practice."