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Lives of both cow and human are very much down to the interplay of genes, food and microbes.

“It all started with banana flies”, says Research Professor and Programme Manager Johanna Vilkki.

The classical crossbreeding of different banana flies fascinated the young genetics student and made genes into something very tangible.

“Exactly the same amounts of different offspring were born as Mendel predicted. That was my moment.”

Desire to find out how genes work

In her career, Vilkki has achieved success in cow gene mapping and, especially, in the research of genes that effect in cow’s health. However, it was not obvious from the start that she would work with cattle. As a young scientist, she dug her way into human genetics as well as to that of plants.

“In my thesis, I studied the human mitochondrial genes. Then I moved on to work in plant breeding, where gene mapping was just beginning.”

Research moved on from simple crossbreeding to complex gene maps and the interaction of multiple genes.

“The work is getting more and more challenging all the time. Still, to me, genes are immensely fascinating.”

When studying cows, the scientists met yet another challenge: microbes. Unavoidably, because a vast crowd of microbes, including the methane producing Archaea, live in the rumen. Moreover, with the genomic methods, it is easier to study the microbes living in the anaerobic environment of the rumen.

“Everything that cows eat goes through rumen. They can’t use grass for their nutrition without microbes. The methane emissions that cows produce are affected by food, genes and microbes as well as their complex interactions.”

Low emission cows – when?

When these interactions of food, genes and microbes and their effects on cow methane production will be thoroughly investigated, the emissions can be lowered.

“I estimate that cow methane emissions can be cut by 50%. It is impossible to get totally rid of methane, because cows do need Archaea. By using certain plant fatty acids in feeding, emissions can already be cut. If we get to use genomic selection to choose cows which have good genes considering emissions, we will have low emission cows in five to ten years.”

Johanna Vilkki says she spends her free time doing quite ordinary things.

“I read a lot. I do my exercise, both in the gym and in the nature.”

Vilkki laughs and tells that her new position as a Programme Manager requires a lot of orientation. In addition, to keep up with science requires time even after the office hours.

“Perhaps I must admit that science is both my work and my most important hobby!”

Text: Marjatta Sihvonen

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