Mutton and lamb sales continue to grow globally at a rate of 5% per year. However, sheep farming struggles with low profit margins due to high feed costs and modest carcass yields. Selecting those sheep expected to convert feed efficiently and have high carcass merit, as early as possible in their life cycle, could significantly improve the profitability of sheep farming. Unfortunately, direct measurement of feed conversion efficiency (via residual feed intake [RFI]) and carcass merit is a labor-intensive and expensive procedure. Thus, indirect, marker-assisted evaluation of these traits has been explored as a means of reducing the cost of its direct measurement. One promising and potentially inexpensive route to discover biomarkers of RFI and/or carcass merit is metabolomics. Using quantitative metabolomics, we profiled the blood serum metabolome (i.e., the sum of all measurable metabolites) associated with sheep RFI and carcass merit and identified candidate biomarkers of these traits. The study included 165 crossbred ram-lambs that underwent direct measurement of feed consumption to determine their RFI classification (i.e., low vs. high) using the GrowSafe System over a period 40 d. Carcass merit was evaluated after slaughter using standardized methods. Prior to being sent to slaughter, one blood sample was drawn from each animal, and serum prepared and frozen at -80 °C to limit metabolite degradation. A subset of the serum samples was selected based on divergent RFI and carcass quality for further metabolomic analyses. The analyses were conducted using three analytical methods (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, and inductively coupled mass spectrometry), which permitted the identification and quantification of 161 unique metabolites. Biomarker analyses identified three significant (P < 0.05) candidate biomarkers of sheep RFI (AUC = 0.80), seven candidate biomarkers of carcass yield grade (AUC = 0.77), and one candidate biomarker of carcass muscle-to-bone ratio (AUC = 0.74). The identified biomarkers appear to have roles in regulating energy metabolism and protein synthesis. These results suggest that serum metabolites could be used to categorize and predict sheep for their RFI and carcass merit. Further validation using a larger (3×) and more diverse cohort of sheep is required to confirm these findings.
Keywords: biomarker; blood; carcass merit; metabolomics; residual feed intake; sheep.
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