Research continuum

Personnel profiles

The genetics of wildlife breeding and conservation

A conversation with Dr Miho Murayama
Professor, Wildlife Research Center

Miho Murayama in her lab

How can we objectively evaluate the factors that regulate monkey behavior?

This has been the guiding question of Miho Murayama’s research career. Now at the Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University, she actively uses genetics to characterize wildlife ecology, investigating genes that affect animal personality traits, and those useful for identifying kinship. Her work has far-reaching applications for breeding and conservation of animals in the wild.

Please tell us about your wildlife genetics research.

DNA provides a rich source of information concerning animal behavior and ecology. In my lab we extract DNA from animal blood, hair, droppings, and other samples. These data are stored in a database containing detailed information on other biological characteristics, which we then use to discover specific DNA variations, or ‘polymorphic markers,’ that help identify individual animals and their kinship. We focus on markers associated with or underlying animal behavior and personality traits, which we can use to promote wildlife breeding and conservation.

What attracted you to wildlife research?

In my early days as an undergrad, I scarcely imagined becoming a scientist. I was surprised to learn that many of my classmates were considering becoming researchers, which led me to think deeply about what I really wanted to do. I had visited Arashiyama Monkey Park in Iwatayama many times, where I had observed monkeys acting and behaving like humans, sometimes suddenly start to fight or chase each other. I had no clue why they behaved like that, and I began to wonder if there might be a tangible basis for their actions.

Male Japanese monkeys have a dominance hierarchy. As my work advanced to the doctoral stage, I found that low-ranking males produce a considerable number of offspring, which is not necessarily the case for higher-ranking monkeys. This raised further questions, such as: what factors other than social dominance influence reproductive success? This inspired me to study monkey social behavior, the factors that determine monkey personality traits, and to do my dissertation on genetic paternity analyses of Japanese macaques.

However, you then applied for a research post at the Shirakawa Institute of Animal Genetics, Japan Livestock Technology Association, where you worked on beef quality…

I really wanted to continue work on primates as a postdoc, but I couldn’t get a job as a monkey researcher. Working with wild monkeys is quite different from that with domesticated cattle. At first, I was at a loss as to how to make headway with this new career.

But I gradually found myself being drawn into this new subject. My research involved determining the genetic basis of high-value, marbled beef. I discovered that the ability to produce such meat is determined by an interaction between multiple genes together with environmental factors.

Animal behavior genetics became my life’s work. It is mediated not by one, but by multiple genes, in combination with significant environmental influence. I began to feel that the methodology of marbled beef genetics may be similar to behavioral genetics.

Kyoto University and Africa

A grasscutter being raised at the University of Ghana

The logo for the JICA-based “Enhancing Livelihoods in Ghana through Improvement in Native Livestock Production” project (© Natsuno Kiyohara)

What projects have you engaged in since leaving the institute?

Humans and other mammals display unique personality traits, which we understand to be influenced by their genes and their environment. These traits are mediated by genes that regulate neural and hormonal transmissions, and can strongly influence an individual’s health. This led to the idea of conducting genetic studies of wildlife to identify their personalities, which I surmised would be useful for predicting health status and mate choice, both important factors for successful breeding and conservation.

Our studies include wild animals, such as elephants, dolphins, zebras, and birds of prey, as well as domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and chickens. The work is ongoing, and I hope that our findings will assist in selecting and training animals, such as to serve as police or guide dogs. In addition to personality trait research, I assist with surveys of genetic diversity of endangered species such as the golden eagle, and in a domestication project of a large rodent in Ghana.

Tackling a food shortage in Ghana through animal breeding

The Ghanaian domestication project is a grassroots cooperation initiative sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Yes, it takes place in the northern part of the Republic of Ghana, West Africa, which is facing a severe food shortage. Due to a reduction in the supply of animal protein, the physical development of children is being greatly delayed in comparison with the south. The harsh, dry climate in the region is not suitable for raising cows and pigs. As an alternative, our project seeks to domesticate and breed ‘grasscutters’ (Thryonomys swinderianus), a rodent species indigenous to the area.

How do grasscutters taste?

They are about the size of cats and their meat, which is low in fat, has a flavor resembling pork. It is a delicacy among Ghanaians. Typically they capture them wild, but this can lead to an ecological imbalance, and a risk of zoonotic (animal-to-human) infection, which is why we are promoting grasscutter domestication for food purposes.

What role does genetics play in this project?

We are searching for grasscutter gene markers and implementing genome-wide sequencing of genetic variants, which should lead us to genes for docile live-stocking and will aid selective breeding. We are also investigating wild grasscutter diet and health, for which we are analyzing their digestive bacterial flora, pathogenic bacteria, and parasites.

We chose three farmers in each village in the study area, and gave them farm-raised grasscutters and cages. We trained the farmers in breeding, and the project started out well. Several farms produced live pups, and their success encouraged us. But then they reported that the animals suddenly stopped bearing litters. So it might take more time before they can achieve stable production.

What is the farmers’ response to the idea of grasscutter rearing and breeding?

They are taking care of the grasscutters very well. The cages are placed in the best spots in their backyards. They also breed chickens and goats, which are mostly unconfined. Keeping animals in a cage is a new idea for them, so some time is needed to get used to this new method of rearing animals.

Could this project possibly develop into a profitable business?

Many European countries are worried about an increase in illegal imports of ‘bushmeat’ (meat from wild animals) from Africa, because of infection risks and negative environmental impact. Bushmeat is consumed among African immigrants living in Europe, and legally permitting import of a controlled supply could allow a potentially large market to expand. Consequently we are planning to produce canned grasscutter meat products, but many hurdles remain before this plan can be realized. We hope that this will eventually promote safe distribution of food.

An international network for protecting endangered species

Your proposal entitled “International Coordination for Endangered Animal Conservation Based on New Post-Genomic Techniques” has been funded this year by the University’s SPIRITS program. What is this project about?

This project promotes genomic analysis of endangered species for conservation purposes. Specifically, we will gather detailed data on genetic similarities and differences between closely related species and habitat-specific genetic diversities of endangered animals. In Japan, for example, efforts are being made to aid reproductive pairing between crested ibises reintroduced from China. We needed detailed genetic information to determine whether these two similar-looking birds actually belong to the same species. We will collect geo-referenced data, such as biological samples, so that we can gain a better understanding of the genetic specificity and diversity of such species facing peril.

Many overseas organizations and institutions have been promoting genetic research for environmental conservation purposes. The San Diego Zoo in California, for example, maintains a bank of over 40 years-worth of frozen cell cultures collected from almost all of the zoo’s animals. Scientists there are using stored cell samples from the northern white rhino to create induced pluripotent stem cells, in an attempt to save this critically endangered species from extinction.

What contributions will your project make in addition to saving endangered species?

If we can understand the genes that underlie stress response, pathogenesis, and fertility, such knowledge will help in achieving stable production of many generations of offspring from zoo animals. We would no longer need to capture wild animals and bring them into captivity. We do not know for certain how such genetic information could be applied to human needs. But for example, wild animals with powerful legs for running or jumping have abilities that are far superior to those of domesticated animals or humans. If we could uncover the genetic mechanisms underlying those abilities, we might possibly be able to apply such knowledge to a better understanding of human physiology.

Kyoto University President Yamagiwa (far right), greeting researchers from the University of Ghana; Drs Yamagiwa and Murayama (far left) are wearing T-shirts bearing the Ghana Grasscutter Project logo

Do international partnerships play a role in advancing your research?

Yes, international cooperation plays a critical role, for example, in determining the migration ranges of birds, because birds do not recognize national boundaries. I have learned a great deal from research organizations overseas. Many zoos in Europe and the United States have research departments, where staff have ready access to biological samples from the park’s animals. In addition, their scientific output can be fed back to the zoo’s animal rearing and management strategies. Many zoos also actively exhibit the achievements of their research programs. Inspired by such activities, our Wildlife Research Center has launched a program to coordinate scientific cooperation and networking between many zoos and aquaria in Japan, including the Kyoto City Zoo. The cooperation between researchers, veterinarians, and keepers is mutually beneficial, and should yield scientific findings that promote research projects across the globe.

What does Kyoto University’s research potential mean to you?

Diversity is a hallmark of Kyoto University, where people from different parts of Japan and many other countries come together to study and conduct research. Diversity in personal preferences, frames of reference, and backgrounds can widen research perspectives. When I attended first-year elective courses at Kyoto University, I met and studied with students from other departments. I still maintain contact and hold interdisciplinary learning sessions with many of them. Access to new ideas and different ways of thinking can help us to think outside of the box.

The Wildlife Research Center that I belong to has been designated as a joint-use organization for research and education. The center hosts visiting researchers from many colleges and universities, providing them with circumstances for mutual intellectual stimulation and learning, and giving the University’s scientists rich opportunities to expand their research potential.