Mastitis means “inflammation of the mammary gland”, more commonly known as the udder. It has a major impact on health and productivity of dairy cattle and sheep. Losses due to mastitis have been estimated at £200 million/year in UK dairy cattle and $200 million/year in dairy cattle in the USA. These losses affect the farmer, but they also affect the carbon foot print of your pint of milk. Cows with mastitis produce less milk than healthy animals, so it takes more cows to produce the same amount of milk. Mastitis also affects milk production in sheep and growth of their lambs.
Mastitis is mostly caused by bacteria. Some bacteria are spread from animal to animal by milking equipment and milkers, for example Streptococcus agalactiae. Other bacteria usually come from the environment, such as Escherichia coli. Yet other species may spread either way, depending on the bacterial strain and herd or flock management. Using molecular epidemiology tools, both modes of transmission have been described for Staphylococus aureus and Streptococcus uberis, although the former is more likely to be contagious whilst the latter is more likely to be environmental. Clearly, one size does not fit all when it comes to mastitis control.
Mastitis is studied in many ways at Moredun, both at the Moredun Research Institute and by Moredun Scientific. Challenge models for various bacterial species enable us to study the immune response to infection, or to evaluate the effect of drugs that limit inflammation and infection. So far, international efforts to develop mastitis vaccines have met with limited success. We hope that better understanding of the immune response will help us to be more successful in vaccine development. To this aim, we can also use Moredun’s unique flock of sheep, the MHC-defined flock, which can help us to dissect mechanisms of protective immunity.
In addition to animal models, we use genomic and proteomic methods to understand the bacterial populations that cause mastitis and the mechanisms that enable bacteria to survive and cause disease. We have large collections of field isolates with specific clinical or epidemiological characteristics so that we can try to link gene presence of protein expression to disease outcome. Collaborations with external parties, such as Cornell University, and an industry funded Mastitis Consortium further contribute to our ability to study and, ultimately, control this important disease.
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