Huge boost to sheep genome mapping

The sheep genetics industry received a huge boost last week with the announcement that New Zealand-based livestock genetics company Ovita (a 50:50 partnership between Meat & Wool New Zealand and AgResearch) has committed $1.2 million worth of funding to help map the sheep genome.

"Just as mapping the human genome will help in fighting disease, mapping the sheep genome could help livestock producers breed better animals faster," Independent Chairman of Ovita, Rick Bettle said today.

The genome is defined as all the biological information that makes up an organism, including its genes and DNA sequences. When scientists first mapped the human genome they found that they could measure the differences in DNA between individuals.

Director of SheepGenomics, Dr Rob Forage, explained how mapping the sheep genome could benefit the sheep industry.

"In the livestock industries, we're interested in the parts of the DNA that are responsible for livestock production traits," Dr Forage said.

"Many desirable livestock traits can"t be measured early enough or on farm; for example eating quality can only be measured after growth and slaughter. By knowing which parts of the genome are responsible for particular livestock traits we could make a selection or breeding decision based on information from a DNA marker test.

"In this way the sheep genome can deliver a very powerful set of diagnostic tools on which to manage the sheep better or to breed a better next generation."

Although several years away, the DNA marker information gained from the sheep genomics program is planned to be delivered through Sheep Genetics as a �marker-enhanced' Australian sheep breeding value (ASBVme).

"Where the DNA markers impact on characteristics that are already measured or held by Sheep Genetics, such as eye muscle depth and scanning data, then we could add the genetic status of the animal from the DNA marker test to what we already know on the breeding value," Dr Forage said.

As part of a coordinated international effort, Australian researchers have been involved in sheep genome sequencing work since 2002.

In late 2003, the $30 million SheepGenomics program - a joint Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation initiative - was established to translate this global research into tangible benefits for the Australian sheep industry.

The money provided by Ovita will help fund an international collaboration led by Australian scientists from the University of Sydney, AgResearch, University of Utah and CSIRO Livestock Industries called the International Sheep Genomics Consortium (ISGC). Key financial investors in the ISGC are Ovita (NZ$1.2M), the Australian Federal Government (through an International Science Linkage Grant of A$857,000), SheepGenomics (A$507,000) and Genesis Faraday (UK�100,000).

Already the ISGC has mapped a �virtual' sheep genome sequence, which was announced in November 2006 and based on the DNA information then available.

SheepGenomics continues to research many livestock traits including muscle growth, wool performance traits, resistance to parasites, and lamb survival. The advances being made have borrowed heavily from prior international investment in human and cattle genomics, allowing the Australian sheep industry to save money and shorten the research path by several years.

Dr Forage said the $1.2 million boost in funding from Ovita was a sign of how important, and how extensive, the sheep genome project is.

"This is a very good example of trans-Tasman cooperation in an area of great economic significance to both countries," Dr Forage said.

"This funding from Ovita further shores up the trans-Tasman collaboration between Meat & Wool New Zealand, AWI and MLA in the field of sheep genomics.

"It"s not just Australia and New Zealand collaborating on this project. The international science community is working together to coordinate the discovery and development of a DNA diagnostic tool that can be applied to sheep. In the process, we will get a first glimpse of a sheep genome sequence

Source : Farmnews

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