24 Apr 2009

Cow genome will 'transform' cattle breeding

10:05 pm on 24 April 2009

Scientists have created the first genetic blueprint of domestic cattle, saying the map may improve beef and milk production and lead to new insights about human health.

The study of the genome of a Hereford cow, published in the journal Science, was a six-year, $US50 million effort by more than 300 scientists in 25 countries, including New Zealand.

Researchers discovered the cattle genome contains at least 22,000 genes, 80% of which are shared with humans.

The team found that cattle have far more in common genetically with humans than do mice or rats, and might make better subjects for studying human health.

The project is the first to map a livestock animal sequence which researchers think it will help explain how cattle evolved, why they ended up with a four-chambered stomach, and why they almost never get cancer.

Researcher Richard Gibbs, from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, says the genome map will transform how dairy and beef cattle are bred.

"We hope the information will also be used to come up with innovative ways to reduce the environmental impact of cattle, such as greenhouse gases released by herds, " he told the BBC.

In New Zealand, AgResearch principal scientist John McEwan who led part of the research effort, says the results are already lifting the rate of genetic gain in production by 50% to 70% a year.

He says the discoveries will in time be seen as one of the biggest milestones in the beef and dairy industries in the the last century.

Mr McEwan says in about 10 years the information will be used for genetic improvement of livestock. He says it also provides a resource for those researching the role of particular genes in health, disease, growth and production of dairy cattle.