Go with the flow-biology and genetics of the lactation cycle

Front Genet. 2015 Mar 26;6:118. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2015.00118. eCollection 2015.


Lactation is a dynamic process, which evolved to meet dietary demands of growing offspring. At the same time, the mother's metabolism changes to meet the high requirements of nutrient supply to the offspring. Through strong artificial selection, the strain of milk production on dairy cows is often associated with impaired health and fertility. This led to the incorporation of functional traits into breeding aims to counteract this negative association. Potentially, distributing the total quantity of milk per lactation cycle more equally over time could reduce the peak of physiological strain and improve health and fertility. During lactation many factors affect the production of milk: food intake; digestion, absorption, and transportation of nutrients; blood glucose levels; activity of cells in the mammary gland, liver, and adipose tissue; synthesis of proteins and fat in the secretory cells; and the metabolic and regulatory pathways that provide fatty acids, amino acids, and carbohydrates. Whilst the endocrine regulation and physiology of the dynamic process of milk production seems to be understood, the genetics that underlie these dynamics are still to be uncovered. Modeling of longitudinal traits and estimating the change in additive genetic variation over time has shown that the genetic contribution to the expression of a trait depends on the considered time-point. Such time-dependent studies could contribute to the discovery of missing heritability. Only very few studies have estimated exact gene and marker effects at different time-points during lactation. The most prominent gene affecting milk yield and milk fat, DGAT1, exhibits its main effects after peak production, whilst the casein genes have larger effects in early lactation. Understanding the physiological dynamics and elucidating the time-dependent genetic effects behind dynamically expressed traits will contribute to selection decisions to further improve productive and healthy breeding populations.

Keywords: breeding value; genome-wide association; genomic prediction; genomic selection; lactation curve; longitudinal; time-dependent.

Publication types

  • Review