Breeding for robustness: the role of cortisol

Animal. 2011 Apr;5(5):651-7. doi: 10.1017/S1751731110002168.


Robustness in farm animals was defined by Knap as 'the ability to combine a high production potential with resilience to stressors, allowing for unproblematic expression of a high production potential in a wide variety of environmental conditions'. The importance of robustness-related traits in breeding objectives is progressively increasing towards the production of animals with a high production level in a wide range of climatic conditions and production systems, together with a high level of animal welfare. Current strategies to increase robustness include selection for 'functional traits', such as skeletal and cardiovascular integrity, disease resistance and mortality in various stages. It is also possible to use global evaluation of sensitivity to the environment (e.g. reaction norm analysis or canalization), but these techniques are difficult to implement in practice. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis is the most important stress-responsive neuroendocrine system. Cortisol (or corticosterone) released by the adrenal cortices exerts a large range of effects on metabolism, the immune system, inflammatory processes and brain function, for example. Large individual variations have been described in the HPA axis activity with important physiopathological consequences. In terms of animal production, higher cortisol levels have negative effects on growth rate and feed efficiency and increase the fat/lean ratio of carcasses. On the contrary, cortisol has positive effects on traits related to robustness and adaptation. For instance, newborn survival was shown to be directly related to plasma cortisol levels at birth, resistance to bacteria and parasites are increased in animals selected for a higher HPA axis response to stress, and tolerance to heat stress is better in those animals that are able to mount a strong stress response. Intense selection for lean tissue growth during the last decades has concomitantly reduced cortisol production, which may be responsible for the negative effects of selection on piglet survival. One strategy to improve robustness is to select animals with higher HPA axis activity. Several sources of genetic polymorphism have been described in the HPA axis. Hormone production by the adrenal cortices under stimulation by adrenocorticotropin hormone is a major source of individual differences. Several candidate genes have been identified by genomic studies and are currently under investigation. Bioavailability of hormones as well as receptor and post-receptor mechanisms are also subject to individual variation. Integration of these different sources of genetic variability will allow the development of a model for marker-assisted selection to improve animal robustness without negative side effects on production traits.