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International consortium cracks cattle genome, builds global database

Wait?! You might say. Hadn’t we already cracked the cattle genome? Yes and no. Before we had a basic outline of the genome so yes, it was cracked, but minimally so. But now, thanks to the work of an international consortium of scientists, we have a much more detailed map – in other words, the genome is laid wide open.

Think of it like Google Maps. What we knew before of the genome resembled the satellite view in Google Maps. Researchers could see the lines in the bigger picture, but not much detail.

Late last year scientists combined the sequenced genome data from 1200 animals of different breeds, mostly ancestral bulls, in a database that is open to many researchers to analyze using new techniques. Data from additional individual animals of many breeds are being added regularly by researchers around the globe.

The initial ancestor bulls produced millions of descendants – the Holsteins alone have fathered 6.3 million daughters at minimum – which has rendered an enormous amount of detail to the genome map. Think of this like Google Maps’ Street View where you can see every building, road, sign, vehicle, person, and other things captured in the interactive photo of that location. Researchers can similarly see striking detail in the cattle genome map.

With the equivalent of Google Maps Street View at their fingertips, researchers can see and understand far more about the genome than they could in single, isolated genome mapping projects using earlier tools and techniques.

"In the past we had only mapped approximately two percent of the variation. Now we have knowledge of it all for a great number of key ancestors. If you use the analogy of a road map, we previously only had sufficient information to see the mileposts on the chromosomal roadmap, but now we can see the entire roadmap," says Bernt Guldbrandtsen in an article in Science Daily.

"Before we only knew about 700,000 markers,” added professor Mogens Sandø Lund, director of the Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University in that same article. “With the new and detailed database we have over 30 million markers to work with. We can predict the genotypes of all animals on the basis of the resource that we have created here."

If you like a more scientific explanation of the effort and results, you’ll find the paper published in Nature Genetics very helpful and interesting.

But they’re not yet finished with this genome mapping. The consortium has placed all the data it has into a single, global database where other scientists around the world can also add gene sequencing data on even more individual animals and of more breeds. As the database grows, cattle genetics and livestock history researchers worldwide will benefit from the increased insights revealed in the open sharing of information.

"When we have such detailed information to build on, we can more easily and effectively focus the breeding work for the benefit of livestock health, welfare and production. We have already used data from the project to identify variations in genes that are associated with both embryo death, which is a major cause of reduced fertility in cattle, and milk yield," said Guldbrandtsen in the Science Daily article.

Where will all this lead in the future land of agriculture? The answer to that is limited only by human imagination.

"It is a global resource that will be the basis for all bovine genetic studies for many years to come. It opens the doors for further studies of the genetic variation of different traits and for more information and studies on the history of cattle," said postdoc Rasmus Froberg Brøndum, also from the Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics, in that same article.

Among the best results likely to come from this project will be better ways to offset disease, climate change, and other emerging threats of global famine through more effective breeding practices.

While the video below is not associated with this particular ongoing effort, it does show the global history of the Texas Longhorn and thereby offers a glimpse into how breeds spread around the world and why it is globally important to have data on every breed accessible to all. In effect, no farmer stands alone in the challenges he confronts or with the livestock history she inherited.

Knowledge strengthens the farmer’s hand that feeds us all.



YouTube Video Credit: The College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

International consortium cracks cattle genome, builds global database

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