Labs worldwide are asking for and getting cell samples from a spicy Urbana sow, the first female pig to have a full genetic record on file.
"We send her around the world," University of Illinois Vice President of Research Lawrence Schook said of the sow's cells.
T.J. Tabasco was her name. The UI announced the genomic breakthrough in November, as well as available cell lines and clones that will allow breeders, veterinarians, genetic biologists and medical researchers to learn from a very ordinary pig.
"We needed to pick a pig that is representative," Schook said, to be the most useful to the most researchers. "This is just your Average Joe Pig."
The library of her genome could be helpful in surprising ways. For instance, many pig tissues are similar to those of human beings, notably heart valves.
They could eventually serve as human replacement parts.
Their eyes are a similar size, and have similar photoreceptors.
Researchers have also created a pig model of a type of cystic fibrosis that looks much like symptoms in humans. Even Alzheimer's research can use pigs.
"There's a campuswide effort here to look at nutrition and human development. Pigs are used as models for human development," Schook said.
Pigs are also different from humans in interesting ways. Schook said they have many more genes for the olfactory (smell) senses, so they're good at rooting things up, and fewer taste genes, which makes them happy with whatever they root up.
With a president (Robert Easter) and a vice president who both came to prominence in swine studies, the University of Illinois has a leading role in the research, which included many European as well as Southern Korean researchers.
"Obviously, we're very proud that an Illinois pig is the reference for the world," Schook said.
Schook started out in mice. They're compact and cheaper to work with, but not as satisfying as swine, he said.
"They not as similar to humans as pigs are," the vice president said.
In 2002, Schook and his colleagues generated a fibroblast cell line from a small piece of skin from T.J. Tabasco's ear and commissioned clones to be created from the cells.
An editorial in the journal Nature said "scientists are salivating" for samples of cells from the late T.J. Tabasco, now kept in liquid nitrogen at the Edward Madigan Laboratory in Urbana.
Schook, who has served as the principle investigator for more than $25 million in sponsored research from the National Institutes of Health, the Agriculture Department, National Science Foundation and industry grants, is project director for the International Swine Genome Sequencing Consortium.
He said pigs are a useful species because scientists can compare their genes with those of a wild ancestor, the boar.
In fact, they could be compared with the genomes of wild and domestic pigs from Europe and Asia.
The genome project drew researchers from all over the world.
Among the Urbana-based scientists involved are: Loretta Auvil, Boris Capitanu; Sandra Rodriguez-Zas, Lauretta Rund, Kyle Schachtschneider Bruce R. Southey, Jonathan V. Sweedler, Jian Ma and Jaebum Kim.
Former Urbana genomics expert Harris A. Lewin, now at the Davis Genome Center, University of California, also participated.