Models for Human Health
Early intervention is also a key theme in Kola Ajuwon’s work, studying obesity in pigs to identify ways to curb the condition in humans. Ajuwon, an animal science adipose biologist, is focused on understanding how fat tissue develops and causes obesity-related problems, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Ajuwon noted similarities between pigs and people: both have a tendency to become obese when they consume energy-rich diets and don’t get enough exercise.
“Pigs kind of mimic what’s become of us,” Ajuwon says.
Those similarities are important to translating findings in pigs to people, but Ajuwon says it’s a key difference that makes pigs great models for human health. A pig can’t lie.
“People are very complex and not controlled during studies,” Ajuwon says. “You tell them not to eat something, and they do. We can keep pigs housed for months and control their diets and habits. We cannot do that with humans.“
Ajuwon studies the extracellular matrix, a sort of scaffolding, that holds cells together. The hope is to understand how the proteins of that matrix affect cell growth and determine which proteins are responsible for fat cell growth. Those proteins could then be targeted as a way to control obesity.
The results, with obvious benefits for humans, would have implications in pig production as well. If diets could be created to control fat cell growth, this could be used to produce leaner pigs that would be more valuable to producers and consumers.
Consistency in Production
The advances in science that are allowing research expansion into comparative medicine and animal well-being issues have also had a serious impact on the more traditional production of animal sciences research.
Mickey Latour, a Purdue poultry and meat specialist, is using high-tech methods to produce better bacon, sausage and other pork products. One of the keys to doing that is to create a consistent product with consumer appeal.
“That’s the difference between the chicken and beef and pork industries,“ Latour says. “Every chicken breast looks the same, but all steaks are a little different. When pigs come in, there are a lot of differences, and all bets are off in terms of consistency.”
Latour’s research is focused on determining which fatty acids are responsible for the separation of pork fat from the lean portions of the meat. It’s this separation that makes some bacon curl when fried and causes problems in restaurants, for instance, which want all meals to look the same from plate to plate. Fat separation can also lessen a product’s premium status and affect the ability to export pork products.