Background: Selective breeding programmes, based on prion protein (PrP) genotype, have been introduced throughout the European Union to reduce the risk of sheep transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). These programmes could have negative consequences on other important traits, such as fitness and production traits, if the PrP gene has pleiotropic effects or is in linkage disequilibrium with genes affecting these traits. This paper presents the results of an investigation into associations between lamb survival and PrP genotype in ten mainstream sheep breeds in Great Britain (GB). In addition, the reasons for lamb deaths were examined in order to identify any associations between these and PrP genotype.
Results: Survival times from birth to weaning were analysed for over 38000 lambs (2427 dead and 36096 live lambs) from 128 flocks using Cox proportional hazard models for each breed, including additive animal genetic effects. No significant associations between PrP genotype and lamb survival were identified, except in the Charollais breed for which there was a higher risk of mortality in lambs of the ARR/VRQ genotype compared with those of the ARR/ARR genotype. Significant effects of birth weight, litter size, sex, age of dam and year of birth on survival were also identified. For all breeds the reasons for death changed significantly with age; however, no significant associations between reason for death and PrP genotype were found for any of the breeds.
Conclusion: This study found no evidence to suggest that a selective breeding programme based on PrP genotype will have a detrimental effect on lamb survival. The only significant effect of PrP genotype identified was likely to be of little consequence because an increased risk of mortality was associated with a genotype that is selected against in current breeding strategies.