In 2021, biology professor Dr. Alison Brown, with the help of her colleague Dr. Erika Niland and a handful of Wingate students, made a big discovery in the world of sheep production. Working with Bret Taylor, an animal scientist at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, Brown and her team showed that “microchimerism” – the presence of male chromosomes in a female, or vice versa – can occur in sheep. Brown, Niland, Taylor and Taylor’s colleague Natalie Pierce published their findings last year in the academic journal Translational Animal Science.
Brown, the lead author, discovered that fetal cells are able to cross over from a fetus to the mother sheep. Even though it’s just one step in a process that could lead sheep producers to tweak how they do business, it’s no small deal. “They didn’t know if it could even happen in sheep,” Brown says. “We are the first ones to say, ‘Yes it can.’”
Brown has been studying sheep reproduction for years, previously having disproven earlier research suggesting that ewes with twin brothers were less fertile. A few years ago, the retiring director of the fertility center at her doctoral alma mater, West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, suggested that she look into microchimerism in sheep.
“I passed it along to the USDA guys,” she says, “and they were like, ‘Oh yeah. This could certainly have a big impact on the sheep industry.’”
Brown enlisted the help of Niland, associate professor of biology and an expert at examining tissue at the molecular level. Niland and Brown perfected a technique for isolating DNA strands to see if any contained a Y chromosome. In the end, they were able to conclusively prove that fetal cells from male sheep were finding their way into the ewes.
The finding was a “pretty big discovery,” Brown admits, but there’s still a long way to go before it translates into actionable information for the industry. The next step is to quantify the amount of microchimerism in ewes, and ultimately the research could get to the point where the findings serve as a guide to sheep producers, making their industry more productive. The goal is to have ewes that are more fertile, or at least fertile for longer: If they can produce more offspring in their lifetime, the industry works more efficiently, saving money and energy.
“Whenever we look at the production of our foods, whether it’s animals or crops or fruit trees, it is about efficiency,” Taylor says. “The longer an animal stays reproductively sound, the more our efficiency of production improves.”
The research is also of huge benefit to a select group of Wingate biology students. Since beginning this study, Brown has drafted five students to travel with her to Idaho to collect tissue samples.
“The students get the full exposure here,” Taylor says. “A full molecular lab. They’re processing samples, extracting DNA, looking for specific gene sets or snips, or whatever they’re chasing. They find out how to handle an animal, and how to collect a sample in an animal that doesn’t injure the animal and the animal continues in good well-being. They also work with other crews and technicians to see what they’re doing.”
Taylor, who works with more than a dozen universities, most of them large land-grant institutions, says Brown forges closer relationships with her students than most.
“They’re always eager to please Alison,” he says. “Alison can clearly present a goal, and I think they want to work toward achieving that goal, because they want her positive congratulations.”
And in this case, they also get to say that they worked on some groundbreaking research. “This is a big deal, especially for a school like Wingate,” Brown says. “We just don’t do high-end research. But I’ve had five undergraduates work on this project.”