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New Otago genetics course launches 2017

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Monday 3 October 2016 2:41pm

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The University of Otago’s new postgraduate programme, the Master of Applied Science in Quantitative Genetics, is set to directly benefit New Zealand’s primary industries, biomedical research, conservation and biosecurity interests.

Quantitative Genetics uses statistical methods to understand the complexities of genetic inheritance. It is widely used in plant and animal breeding and, increasingly, human medicine and conservation genetics.

Traditionally, New Zealand’s demand for skilled quantitative geneticists has been largely been met by overseas talent.

Dr Phil Wilcox is the University’s inaugural senior lecturer in quantitative genetics. He says the new programme will provide a pool of homegrown talent. “These will be people trained within the New Zealand context, so we’ll have a deeper pool of local talent to draw on who are ‘kiwified’. By that, I mean people who are attached to New Zealand and understand its intricacies.”

Dr Wilcox’s position is 60 per cent funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Genetics, reflecting the importance of quantitative genetics to New Zealand’s primary sector.

“The new programme is significant for New Zealand on several levels. The field of applied quantitative genetics is broadening in scope. Not only has it been important for our primary sector, but – within my lifetime – we are likely to see the advent of whole-genome sequencing for diagnostic purposes in medicine.

“We are also moving into an era where the genomes of multiple endangered species will be fully sequenced, as is currently happening with the kākāpō.

“Then there is the uniqueness of the New Zealand context. In a post-Treaty of Waitangi settlement era, it is important to conduct genetic research with Māori and on indigenous biota in an ethically appropriate manner – which includes using appropriate analytical methods for data analyses and interpretation – so that mistakes like the Warrior Gene debacle a few years ago are not repeated.”

The two-year master’s programme has a modular structure, making it a feasible professional development option for people already working in the field. It includes work-based projects and supervised independent study, using – wherever possible – New Zealand-relevant data sets for analysis.

The programme includes a postgraduate certificate and diploma option and, across the three programme options, it is expected to attract up to 20 students, annually. Individuals are likely to come from biological, medical, statistical or computer science backgrounds. The programme will commence in 2017.

B+LNZ Genetics chair Dr Chris Kelly says the quantitative genetics capability is fundamental for New Zealand continuing to make progress in sheep and beef genetics.

“New Zealand used to be the global powerhouse of quantitative genetics for sheep and cattle. Over the years, that competitive advantage has been eroded. This programme will help rebuild capability and enable sheep and beef farmers to enjoy productivity improvements through the use of superior genetics.”

The Quantitative Genetics programme is offered by the University of Otago’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, with input from the Department of Biochemistry, the Genetics Teaching Programme, and Genetics Otago. It is supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (via a contract to B+LNZ Genetics), with support from AbacusBio Ltd, Plant and Food Research Ltd, the Radiata Pine Breeding Company and other primary sector parties.

For more information, contact:

Dr Phillip Wilcox,
B+LNZ Genetics Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Genetics
University of Otago

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