22 March 2016

Research on pigs help people fighting obesity


Driving from farm to farm, clad in wellingtons, helping calving cows, diseased pigs and lame horses. This was how the young Merete Fredholm – who grew up on the family farm in Southern Jutland – imagined her working life as a veterinarian. But then it all went awry.

By Mikkel Andreas Beck

“I actually had a job offering at a veterinarian’s practice when I graduated. I’d had completed my studies quite rigorously and had decided on accepting the job. But it all went wrong the moment I noticed that a project on genetic research on pigs had an opening for a scientific assistant. Because then I thought that I might as well give research a try before going into practice,” says Merete Fredholm. Today, she is a professor at the Department of Veterinary Clinical and Animals Sciences.

Why did you become a researcher?

“Genetics got the better of me – basically, it was just really exciting. The mid-1980s saw the serious onset of the DNA-era. I did my PhD in traditional genetic research based on serology in pigs, but studying only one single area of genetic material, which is what I did for my PhD, became too limiting for me.

“I was lucky enough to get what was called a ‘career assistant professorship’, and this enabled me to do my postdoc in the US. While there, I worked with mice genetics in a laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment at my fingertips. Molecular genetics crawled under my skin and to be honest, I’ve not looked at a veterinary practice since.”

Why is your research important for society?

“I work with domestic animal genetics, with identifying the importance of genes in relation to diseases in e.g. pigs, cattle and dogs, which is very important for breeding purposes.

“Much of what we do is basic research. We’ve helped develop the tools that you need to get started on domestic animal genomes. It’s fundamental research for others to build on. Our primary research activities are centred on developing still better methods to work with genome research in domestic animals to eliminate diseases.

“We also collaborate with SEGES – Agriculture and Food’s knowledge centre on pig production. We help them optimize the production of pigs by improving fodder efficiency. If you feed your animals in the best possible way, you can reduce the cost of production while also reducing the discharge of unwanted compounds in their excreta.

“Furthermore, our research will benefit all of us because pigs are great models for humans, better than for example mice, which are also frequently used in research. We have established a large population of pigs and by observing them, we can also examine why humans develop overweight and obesity.”

Talk about a career high

“Well, this could be when we locate a gene-mutation of importance to the development of a specific disease. That’s a wow-moment. Or when we experience that we are capable of contributing at a high international level.

“For instance, our laboratory was the largest in the world that was able to test dog DNA in paternity cases, i.e. it was possible to trance the father which is very important in breeding, and it makes it much harder to try and deceive customers in terms of pedigree, which has been quite prevalent in dog breeding. We developed that method here.”

What is the best part about your job?

“Genetics is simply so exciting. It’s a field undergoing constant and huge developments; it never stops. Recently, I gave a lecture to some retired scientists, a sort of historic overview, and even I was quite surprised by the developments.

“Just think about what’s happened over the last few years … SO much has happened, and it just continues. In some ways it’s frustrating, because new complicated layers are constantly added. Previously, they believed that it was possible to generate some sort of overview that would provide some kind of solution to – well, I’m tempted to say – everything.

“However, so many things influence the human genome. There are so many factors … And that’s why there’s still so much to uncover, and that’s really exciting.”

What do you do when you are not researching?

“In the last five years, I’ve been a member of the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF), where I’m the vice chairperson.  This has meant quite a bit of work on research policies. I my leisure time, I like to read, both great classics, only they take time, so crime novels in particular when I need to switch off completely: John Grisham, Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, P.D. James, etc. I also enjoy historic novels. I like spending time with my family and spending time in my garden is really relaxing.”