Background Within the European Union the use of growth promoting agents in animal production is prohibited. Illegal use of natural prohormones like dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is hard to prove since prohormones are strongly metabolized in vivo. In the present study, we investigated the feasibility of a novel effect-based approach for monitoring abuse of DHEA. Changes in gene expression profiles were studied in livers of bull calves treated orally (PO) or intramuscularly (IM) with 1000 mg DHEA versus two control groups, using bovine 44K DNA microarrays. In contrast to controlled genomics studies, this work involved bovines purchased at the local market on three different occasions with ages ranging from 6 to 14 months, thereby reflecting the real life inter-animal variability due to differences in age, individual physiology, season and diet. Results As determined by principal component analysis (PCA), large differences in liver gene expression profiles were observed between treated and control animals as well as between the two control groups. When comparing the gene expression profiles of PO and IM treated animals to that of all control animals, the number of significantly regulated genes (p-value 1.5) was 23 and 37 respectively. For IM and PO treated calves, gene sets were generated of genes that were significantly regulated compared to one control group and validated versus the other control group using Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (GSEA). This cross validation, showed that 6 out of the 8 gene sets were significantly enriched in DHEA treated animals when compared to an 'independent' control group. ConclusionThis study showed that identification and application of genomic biomarkers for screening of (pro)hormone abuse in livestock production is substantially hampered by biological variation. On the other hand, it is demonstrated that comparison of pre-defined gene sets versus the whole genome expression profile of an animal allows to distinguish DHEA treatment effects from variations in gene expression due to inherent biological variation. Therefore, DNA-microarray expression profiling together with statistical tools like GSEA represent a promising approach to screen for (pro)hormone abuse in livestock production. However, a better insight in the genomic variability of the control population is a prerequisite in order to define growth promoter specific gene sets that can be used as robust biomarkers in daily practice.
- messenger-rna expression
- anabolic agents