The ability of scientists to improve health and disease management of cattle and enhance the nutritional value of beef and dairy products has received a major boost with the release this week of the most complete sequence of the cow genome ever assembled.
Developed by an international consortium of research organisations, including CSIRO and AgResearch New Zealand, the new bovine sequence contains 2.9 billion DNA base pairs and incorporates one-third more data than earlier versions.
Differences in just one of these base pairs (known as single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) can affect the functioning of a gene and mean the difference between a highly productive and a poorly performing animal. Over two million of these SNPs, which are genetic signposts or markers, were identified as part of the project.
Australia's representative on the US $53 million Bovine Genome Sequencing Project, CSIRO's Dr Ross Tellam, says the new map marks the end of the sequencing phase of the project, with the focus now on analysing the available data.
"This is very valuable information," Dr Tellam says. "We could potentially achieve as much improvement in cattle breeding and production in 50 years as we have over the last 8000 years of traditional farming."
Cattle geneticists will use the bovine genome as a template to highlight genetic variation within and between cattle breeds, and between cattle and other mammal species.
The head of bioinformatics research at CSIRO Livestock Industries, Dr Brian Dalrymple, says the new data is very valuable because it provides researchers with a more complete picture of the genes in a cow and how variations in the DNA code influence desirable production traits.
"We can use this data to identify those genes that are involved in important functions like lactation, reproduction, muscling, growth rate and disease resistance," Dr Dalrymple says.