Molecular genetics of the adrenocortical axis and breeding for robustness.
ABSTRACT The concept of robustness refers to the combination of a high production potential and a low sensitivity to environmental perturbations. The importance of robustness-related traits in breeding objectives is progressively increasing toward the production of animals with a high production level in a wide range of climatic conditions and production systems, together with a high level of animal welfare. Current strategies to increase robustness include selection for "functional traits," such as skeletal and cardiovascular integrity, disease resistance, and mortality at various stages. It is also possible to use global evaluation of sensitivity to the environment (eg reaction norm analysis or canalization), but these techniques are difficult to implement in practice. The glucocorticoid hormones released by the adrenal cortex exert a wide range of effects on metabolism, the cardiovascular system, inflammatory processes, and brain function, for example. Protein catabolism toward energy production and storage (lipids and glycogen) supports their pivotal role in stress responses aiming at the adaptation and survival of individuals under strong environmental pressure. Large individual variations have been described in adrenocortical axis activity, with important physiopathological consequences. In terms of animal production, higher cortisol levels have negative effects on growth rate and feed efficiency and increase the fat:lean ratio of carcasses. On the contrary, cortisol has positive effects on functional traits and adaptation. Intense selection for lean tissue growth and more generally high protein output during the past decades has concomitantly reduced cortisol production, which may be responsible for the negative effects of selection on functional traits. In this paper, we review experimental evidence suggesting that the balance between production and functional traits was modified in favor of improved robustness by selecting animals with higher adrenocortical axis activity, as well as the molecular genetic tools that can be used to fine-tune this objective.