Symposium in honour of Professor John A Woolliams (virtual)

Virtual celebration 28 January, 2021


Deadline: 27/01/2021
Click here to register

General Information

Please join us at this online event to honour the career of Professor John Woolliams, who has been Personal Chair of Mathematical Genetics at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, and has retired on 18 November 2020. A short summary of his career is provided below the agenda.

Details of how to login to the event will be sent to participants at a later date.


John Woolliams has been a recognised leader in the science of quantitative genetics applied to animal breeding for four decades. He has made important contributions in several key areas, including the development of the quantitative genetic theory that underlies key principles of modern breeding programs; applied research to solve practical problems in breeding programs; and the training and mentoring of numerous students and scientists, many of whom are now leaders in the field. He began his career in 1977 at the UK government-funded Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) in Edinburgh and continued working there through various reorganizations that led to the Roslin Institute, which is now part of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

It has long been recognized that the greater the genetic change through selection, the greater the danger of unintended side effects arising from erosion of genetic variability, genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding. Using the concept of genetic contributions, John developed a unifying framework for modelling genetic gain and inbreeding, leading to better predictions of the genetic gain and rate of inbreeding under selection programmes as well as the development of tools to implement the solutions in practice. Specifically, optimal contribution selection, developed and published in the late 1990s, provided the framework to achieve the highest gain while restricting the rate of inbreeding and thus the loss of genetic variability. This work has subsequently been extended to include genomic selection. Through industrial collaborations, John and colleagues implemented these solutions in leading breeding programmes.

John was also one of the first to recognise the potential of genomic selection. He subsequently contributed to theoretical developments that explain how and why genomic selection works and how it should be optimised. Specifically, he worked out how to predict accuracy of genomic selection based on a set of manageable and interpretable parameters and how genomic selection impacts inbreeding. John’s research has provided crucial information for implementation of this game-changing technology in numerous breeding programmes.

Infectious disease control is one of the most promising applications of genomic selection, as it would allow identification of individuals that are genetically more resistant or less likely to transmit infections based on their genotypes alone. However, progress has been hampered by failure to unmask the genetic signal from notoriously noisy field disease data. John, together with colleagues at Roslin and beyond, has developed crucial statistical methodology to produce estimated breeding values (EBVs) for acquiring and transmitting disease. This methodology has led to the launch of a new selection index for resistance to bovine tuberculosis in dairy cattle introduced in the UK in January 2016. This index is an important contribution towards the UK government’s goal to make the UK officially free of bovine tuberculosis by 2038, a goal that could not be achieved by existing control measures alone.

In addition to his extensive work on livestock breeding, John has made important contributions to breeding in other taxa, including dogs and conifers. Collaborations with The Kennel Club have led to the calculation of EBVs for hip and elbow dysplasia (two common and debilitating diseases) as well as the degree of genetic relatedness of potential mates (MateSelect), all of which are now available to dog breeders and owners and are having a direct impact on breeding decisions. He is currently working on a project to develop new tools for management of inbreeding in pedigree dogs. In addition, John co-led the first application of genomic prediction in dogs, for hip dysplasia in Labrador retrievers. John has also ventured into the area of forestry genetics to implement genomic selection in commercially grown Sitka spruce in the UK.

In addition to his cutting-edge research, John has been a teacher and mentor to numerous scientists throughout his career. He taught and supervised research projects in the MSc in Quantitative Genetics and Genome Analysis (previously, Animal Breeding and Quantitative Genetics) and has supervised over 20 PhD students. He has also mentored numerous postdocs and other researchers who have spent time in Edinburgh (including many of us who have stayed!) and he has continued to collaborate with many of these scientists. John has been extremely generous with his time and intellect and many of us have benefitted from his enthusiastic and helpful scribbling on notepaper.

Meeting organisers:

Gregor Gorjanc

Andrea Wilson

Pam Weiner

Ricardo Pong-wong

Joanna Ilska

Mateja Janes


Session 1: 10.30am to 12pm

Session chairs: Ricardo Pong-Wong and Andrea Doeschl-Wilson

10.30am Welcome and Introduction (Bruce Whitelaw, Interim Director of the Roslin Institute)

10.35am Theo Meuwissen (Norwegian University of Life Sciences, NMBU): Management of genetic diversity in the era of genomics

10.55 am Beatriz Villanueva (National Institute for Agriculture and Food Research and Technology, INIA): The value of genomic relationship matrices for estimating inbreeding

11.15 am Mike Coffey (Scotland’s Rural College, SRUC): #phenotypeisking

11.35 am Gregor Gorjanc (Roslin Institute): Temporal and genomic analysis of genetic variance

12 – 1pm: Lunch Break

Session 2: 1pm – 2.30pm

Session chairs: Albert Tenesa and Joanna Ilska

1 pm Simon More (University College Dublin): Bridging the gap between epidemiology and quantitative genetics: bovine tuberculosis as a case study

1.20 pm Andrea Doeschl-Wilson (Roslin Institute): Identifying genetic super-spreaders of infections

1.40 pm Santiago Avendano (Aviagen): Long-lasting contributions to modern poultry breeding’

2 pm Pam Wiener (Roslin Institute): Genetic dissection of complex traits in dogs

2.30 – 3 pm Coffee Break

Session 3: 3pm – 4.30pm

Session chairs: Chris Haley & Smaragda Tsairidou

3 pm Piter Bijma (Wageningen University): The quantitative genetics of the prevalence of infectious diseases

3.20 pm Steve Lee (Forest Research): About breeding time

3.40 pm Joanna Ilska (Roslin Institute): All creatures Great and Small – on managing inbreeding in pedigree dogs

4 pm John Woolliams (Roslin Institute): Where from and where to?

4.25 pm Wrap up