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Cow genome unraveled to improve meat, milk

An international research team unveils a cow's genetic code, assembled into a freely available database that could lead to better beef and dairy products.
Bovine Basics
A Hereford cow named L1 Dominette 01449 stands with her calf on the rangeland of the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont.Michael Macneil / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The cow is of the bovine ilk, one end is moo, the other, milk. Now science knows why which is which, they've read the genome, without a hitch.

While poet Ogden Nash had cow basics down, it took 300 scientists six years to outline the genetic sequence of "L1 Dominette 01449," a Hereford cow living on a research farm near Miles City, Mont.

Researchers led by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture report their findings in a herd of 20 papers appearing in Friday's edition of the journal Science and other journals including Genome Biology.

The researchers believe the findings will help improve the quality and safety of beef and dairy products and can be used to develop better ways of treating and preventing diseases that affect cattle.

Among their findings:

  • Modern cattle developed from a diverse ancestral population from Africa, Asia and Europe, that has undergone a recent rapid decrease in population size, probably due to domestication.
  • The genome of the domestic cattle contains approximately 22,000 genes, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 for humans.
  • Cattle and humans have about 80 percent of their genes in common
  • The organization of human chromosomes is closer to that of domestic cattle than to those of rats or mice, which are often used in lab tests of drugs intended for people.
  • Cattle chromosomes, like those of humans and other mammals, contain segmental duplications, which are large, almost identical copies of DNA present in at least two locations in a genome.

They found that in domestic cattle, the duplications related to immunity, metabolism, digestion, reproduction and lactation. Such duplications in humans have been related to a variety of disorders.

A separate paper in Science reports that researchers have also compiled draft gene sequences from other types of cows for comparison. Those include the Holstein, Angus, Jersey, Limousin, Norwegian Red and Brahman breeds.

The sequencing project was coordinated by Richard Gibbs and George Weinstock of the Baylor College of Medicine; Chris Elsik of Georgetown University and Ross Tellam of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state of Texas, Genome Canada, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia, Agritech Investments Ltd., Dairy Insight, Inc., and AgResearch Ltd., all of New Zealand; the Research Council of Norway; the Kleberg Foundation, and the National, Texas, and South Dakota Beef Check-off Funds.