Sheep genome spins a good yarn

The mapping of the whole genome of the humble sheep, completed with the help of New Zealanders, opens up a world of new research for improving the health of New Zealand’s most populous farm animal and the quality of its meat and wool.

The sheep genome was based on a texel sheep, like this one. Flickr: Lindsay Wilson.

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Otago and AgResearch, have sequenced the sheep genome, mapping out the DNA code that the is blueprint for making a sheep.

Publication of the work today in the journal Science is the culmination of a seven year project for the team, which is part of the International Sheep Genomics Consortium, involving 26 institutions across eight countries.

By comparing its genetic underpinnings to those of other mammals, the researchers identified genes that may explain the sheep’s specialised digestive system and the sheep’s unique fat metabolism process, which helps maintain its thick, woolly coat.

Because sheep are an important agricultural species (there are over 30 million in New Zealand), the results of this effort will provide crucial resources for future research on this animal.

AgResearch Principal Scientist John McEwan is one of the paper’s authors. He says New Zealand scientists have been using the information from the project for the last six to seven years as it has been generated.

“It has allowed us to do a whole lot of things that were previously impossible… we have implemented genomic selection in sheep, and New Zealand has been world-leading in this regard. It has also meant that the pace of discovery of gene variants affecting production and disease traits has advanced much more rapidly internationally.”

The news has been covered by national media. Examples include:

Radio New Zealand: NZ scientists map sheep genes
NZ City News: NZ researchers help create perfect sheep
TVNZ: Mapping of sheep genome generates millions for lamb industry
Yahoo NZ News: Kiwis take part in world-leading research into sheep
3 News: International paper reveals genome of sheep