A Jewish pig geneticist

Max Rothschild (left) in Uganda. Credit: courtesy of Max Rothschild" />Max Rothschild (left) in Uganda. Credit: courtesy of Max Rothschild The Rothschild lineage is often associated with Jewish tradition, banking, and fantastic wines. But Max Rothschild, a researcher at Iowa State University, is associated with some decidedly nonkosher animals: pigs. And, more recently, shrimp. When he was about 7 or 8 years old, Rothschild had a different kind

Ivan Oransky
Apr 1, 2008
<figcaption>Max Rothschild (left) in Uganda. Credit: courtesy of Max Rothschild</figcaption>
Max Rothschild (left) in Uganda. Credit: courtesy of Max Rothschild

The Rothschild lineage is often associated with Jewish tradition, banking, and fantastic wines. But Max Rothschild, a researcher at Iowa State University, is associated with some decidedly nonkosher animals: pigs. And, more recently, shrimp.

When he was about 7 or 8 years old, Rothschild had a different kind of pig — guinea pigs — as pets. His curiosity about their coat colors led to an interest in genetics, and that led to his wanting to become a veterinarian.

So he enrolled at the University of California, Davis, which has a world-renowned vet school. He landed a job cleaning up after pigs, and that convinced him to switch his plans. He went to graduate school in animal science, eventually earning a PhD in animal breeding. He's since become arguably the world's leading pig geneticist, coeditor of The Genetics of the Pig...

Pigs "are fascinating creatures."

"They're fascinating creatures," he says of pigs. "They have large litters, and a short generation interval, what every geneticist wants." Rothschild worked with cattle at one point in the late 1970s, but found it somewhat boring. "I was just worried that there wasn't going to be enough to do."

Rothschild's pig research started out in quantitative genetics. In a series of selection experiments in the 1980s, he found a wide divergence when it came to how their feet and legs could withstand farm conditions (e.g., J Anim Sci, 66:1636—42, 1988). "The best-adapted animals could walk like cats," he says. "The worst walked as though they were crippled." The work became part of a life-long interest in animal welfare and health.

He then turned to the major histocompatibility complex, studying pigs' immune hardiness ( J Anim Sci, 64:407—19, 1987). Since the early 1990s, he's conducted gene-mapping experiments, and now serves as the coordinator of the US Pig Genome Project. His lab has identified more than 40 genes that affect characteristics from reproduction to meat quality to growth rate and back fat ( Int J Biol Sci, 10:192—7, 2007).

Rothschild has more than 10 patents on those genes, and he estimates that about half of the animals produced every year in the United States are somehow the results of a test based on those patents. One of them was a test for estrogen receptor properties that allowed farmers to increase litter size. For almost 20 years, he's worked with the two largest pig-breeding companies in the United States, which have at times funded his research. "My goal is to make a discovery, but not just to put it on the shelf but put it out there," he says.

"When it comes to science, I think there's a mandate in life to help people," Rothschild says. Pork makes up 45% of the red meat eaten worldwide, and he's always been interested in looking at genetics as a way to boost the food supply. He's traveled to 40 countries to help governments and farmers improve the genetics of their livestock, and he helped establish the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods, which he calls a "copycat" of Heifer International. (Heifer accepts donations to help families in the developing world obtain pigs, goats, and rabbits — and heifers, of course.)

Rothschild switches species every 20 years or so, so he can do something different. Most recently, he's moved into research on shrimp. "More and more [grad students] don't grow up on the farm, they grow up in cities," he says. "Shrimp are a great model because students are interested in them." Shrimp also have the advantage of being nearly completely unselected, with tremendous genetic variability. "A lot of people like to eat it, and it's got some economic value to it," says Rothschild.

Shrimp, of course, are no more kosher than pigs. Rothschild didn't grow up following Old Testament proscriptions, and he doesn't keep kosher. He doesn't like to make much of his Judaism, even though others mention it, given the nature of his work. "I never thought about it that way," he says of the seeming contradiction between the animals he studies and his religion. "My religion stresses helping my fellow man and I believe my work, even with pigs, does this."

And any relationship his family has with the fabled Rothschilds is distant. He should know; he's interested in DNA genealogy and serves on the scientific board of Family Tree DNA. "It's not close enough," he says, laughing. "We gotta work for a living."