The Danish city of Aarhus provided the backdrop for this year’s 11th International Symposium on Milk Genomics and Human Health. Our hosts at the University of Aarhus provided a windy, but welcoming, setting for an intensive three days of research presentations. Here are some of the main themes and findings:
1) The pre-symposium session set the scene by presenting an update on observational studies on the status of dairy in human nutrition and health. Both human and animal studies have shown strong associations between dairy intake and favorable outcomes in aspects of metabolic health (Carson; Heegaard; Dalsgaard; Holm).
2) Animal genomics in dairy cattle is capitalizing on the developments in genomic selection and shifting focus towards new traits. The Scandinavian experience showed a remarkable 50% increase in genetic gain since the introduction of genomic tools (Stalhammer). We were also treated to an overview of a new EU program to study the genomics and biology of methane emissions and rumen microbiota using a multi-disciplinary approach (Wallace). QTL were described for milk mineral content in Danish Holstein and Jersey cattle, with high heritabilities for Ca, Zn, K and Mg (Buitenhuis). Traits associated with physical processing and cheese-making properties of milk continue to be a focus for the Danish-Swedish program, with significant progress reported in identifying variation in coagulation properties among breeds and herds (Larson, Poulsen). Finally, a presentation on the use of eigenvectors cautioned dairy scientists to be careful about using correlated traits when performing genetic analysis (Eskildsen).
3) A review of dairy protein quality and sustainability presented some interesting and noteworthy facts and figures. As expected, dairy contributes widely to nutrition, and particularly to providing high quality protein around the world, with a growing impact in new markets. However, the current view is that this is done with significant impact on the environment. Yet, when a food value index is taken into consideration, by including nutrient density as a factor, dairy is a far more sustainable product than otherwise credited (Hooijdonk).
4) The lactation biologists again highlighted the incredible value of model systems. The first ever computer imaging systems analysis of mammary gland architecture, coupled with in silico genomic analysis, showed what modern biotechnologies are capable of delivering. Mammary gland architecture dictates milk production capacity in all mammals, including humans, and is fundamental to understanding low-level or failed lactation (Hadsell). Exotic animal models also continue to provide novel milk constituents as new leads for areas as diverse as lung development and powerful anti-microbials (Sharp). They also continue to shed light on drivers of milk production and mammary gland responses (Ramakrishnan, Mobuchon).
5) Infant nutrition, particularly for pre-term infants, was once again a theme at this symposium. Funded by the Danish Research Council, the NEOMUNE program, along with collaborating centers worldwide (especially in China), are taking a global view to identify best practices, and to assess the role of colostrum and milk (Sanglid, Nguyen). Consideration of fundamental physiological factors, including gastrointestinal lipase activity, is critical in defining appropriate formulations for perinatal nutrition (Hellegren). Integrating information from so many centers and across a range of disciplines sparked a lively discussion on the challenges of research translation.
6) The potential for probiotic effects of milk form the basis of an exciting new program that looks at the variation in milk microbes and genetic diversity in mothers from diverse geographical and ethnic backgrounds (McGuire). Their studies, using advanced tools for dissecting milk components and metabolites, are beginning to unravel additional complexity, but in a context that compares samples based on differences in physiology or pathology in subjects. (Popovic, Spevacek, Beck, Gillespie, Hettinger).
7) Canadian dairy research representatives are always a welcome sight at the symposium. We heard a wonderful description of the integrated resources available to streamline research in the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods, from animal sciences to clinical trials. This was exemplified by a detailed description of the impact of dairy as a complex food matrix on health parameters (Turgeon).
8) The endemic health challenges of weight management and metabolic diseases, and the changing dogma on lipids in the context of cardiovascular disease, received a lot of attention at the meeting. The latest meta-analyses show that dairy is not associated with an increase in either metabolic or cardiovascular disease incidence. Moreover, the EpiACT study shows a protective effect for type-2 diabetes (Astrup). The role of protein and milk fat, particularly in the context of a food matrix, are being studied extensively in multi-center programs, like the EU Dairy Health Project, and in laboratory based animal models (Clausen, Amer).
9) A terrific retrospective presented information on the functional effects of milk constituents and the impact of supplemented formulations on infant health. Furthermore, the presentation showed the documentation of the beneficial effects on a range of outcomes, from brain development to H. pylori infection (Lonnerdal). Piglet models have become the preferred system for analyzing pre-term and neonatal outcomes. The gold standard for a pig neonatal intensive care unit –and associated analytical tools– illustrated with a brain and behavior study from Illinois (Radlowski).
10) The presentation on a 20-year R&D journey on osteopontin, described a remarkable story of continual discovery and a tour-de-force in the field (Sorensen). The story highlighted the nature of the commitment required from investors for identifying bioactive components in milk and following through on product development.
The science was punctuated with a splendid sojourn to the beautiful Varna Palaeet for the annual dinner. We were treated to a delicious meal of fine haute cuisine, as well as the classic tones of Schumann, Bach, Rachmaninov … and the cow song! Great fun!
Professor Peter Williamson
Associate Professor, Physiology and Genomics
University of Sydney, Australia