PA2: Animal health and Welfare

Today, the sustainable safeguarding of animal health and welfare of animals under human care is a main task coherently recognized and demanded by science, society, policy and economy.

Compared to wild-living animals, the processes of domestication and breeding, limitations of housing environments in anthropogenic ecosystems, economization of performance-associated traits, and altered social and living conditions of farm animal populations have resulted in major changes of physiology and behaviour of such animals. This may have negative consequences for the animals if the husbandry challenges exceed their evolved adaptive repertoire. Therefore, our research on animals under human care is focused on clarification of the function and the processes of biological systems that play an essential role in physiological and psychological coping with challenges in agroecosystems in the context of health and welfare. This includes various key players of the immune, the reproductive, the metabolic and the neuroendocrine system as well as the behaviour; but most of all the complex interaction between these systems. The interdisciplinary approaches of this systemic research comprise all biological levels from molecular biology to behaviour, from the cell and its compartments to the organism, and finally the social aggregation. Our research goals are the identification of innovative bioindicators for animal health and well-being, as well as the development of strategies for prevention of diseases and for the improvement of animal welfare in terms of housing, nutrition, and management.

Cluster 2.1: Etho-physiological adaptation and welfare

The cluster projects focus on the biology of animal welfare - on how it can be described, measured and achieved in pigs, cattle and dwarf goats. Their main objectives are the investigation of fundamental processes in farm animal behaviour such as affective appraisal, cognitive abilities, individual and social coping processes, the observation of social behaviour in animal groups and social network analysis as well as the analysis of neuroendocrine, immunological and ethological interactions following psychosocial stress. Novel bioindicators for non-invasive stress monitoring will be developed and validated and potential bioindicators of the physiological condition such as the growth hormone-insulin-like growth factor system and tryptophan metabolites will be studied. Moreover, the cluster will provide the methodological platform for the visualization of biological networks using multi-omics data.

Cluster 2.2: Disease and immune response

Highly efficient disease-prevention and –control strategies are essential components to ensure animal health and welfare in livestock as well as in farmed aquatic animals. Prerequisite to achieve this goal is to understand the reactions of the animals’ immune system exposed to biotic and abiotic challenges and host-pathogen interactions. In the cluster “Disease and immune response”, projects will address key elements of the immune response, including endogenous competence/genetic predisposition and exogenous immune modulators to identify novel bioindicators/-markers and to develop innovative immune modulation concepts (including bioactive nutrients) for improved animal health. Further research topics within the cluster will be comprehensive and comparative analyses of protective barriers, innate and adaptive immune response and its interrelation with cellular/tissue functions and the energy metabolism, as well as harmful genetic variants.

Cluster 2.3: Metabolic health

This cluster focusses on the interaction of distinct metabolites and other (patho)physiological components with the health status of farm animals. Projects address the question whether different feeding strategies might positively influence the health status, wellbeing and immune response in pre-weaning calves as well as later in adult animals. In adult animals projects within this cluster focus on reproductive fitness of dairy cows. Whereas one part of the project aims to understand molecular mechanisms for varying metabolic conditions on female reproduction, a second part intended to analyze the impact of oxidative stress and oxidatively modified metabolites on the female reproductive system in bovine. Using a highly differentiated 3D tissue model of the female reproductive tract from pig and bovine, projects within this cluster also aims to mimic the morphology and functional interactions of reproductive tract epithelia with hormones, metabolites and gametes. In selected animal models mechanisms of pleiotropy are in the center of interest. In particular the interaction between energy metabolism, reproductive development and health span will be studied in greater detail.