More efficient supply of beef and dairy on the cards?

Posted by Editorial on 24th April 2009

Ground breaking findings by an international consortium of scientists who sequenced and analysed the bovine genome, could result in more sustainable food production.
The findings, published in two reports in the journal Science today, will have a profound impact on Australia’s livestock industry, according to the CSIRO.

CSIRO scientists were among the 300 researchers from 25 countries involved in the six-year Bovine Genome Sequencing Project designed to sequence, annotate and analyse the genome of a female Hereford cow called L1 Dominette.

The scientists discovered that the bovine genome contains 2,870 billion DNA building blocks, encoding a minimum of 22,000 genes. Of major interest to scientists are the differences in the organisation of the genes involved in lactation, reproduction, digestion and metabolism in cows compared to other mammals.

One of the lead authors of the report on the project’s latest findings, CSIRO Livestock Industries researcher Dr Ross Tellam said the bovine genome has about 14,000 genes which are common to all mammals and these constitute the ‘engine room’ of mammalian biology.

“The team found that cows share about 80 per cent of their genes with humans, also providing us with a better understanding of the human genome,” Dr Tellam said. “One of the surprises in the analysis was that cow and human proteins have more in common than mouse and human proteins, yet it is the mouse that is often used in medical research as a model of human disease conditions.”

These new findings will point the way for future research that could result in more sustainable food production, according to CSIRO.”The availability of very large numbers of single nucleotide polymorphisms (DNA changes in the genetic blueprint) has allowed the development of gene chips that measure genetic variation in cattle populations and will allow the rapid selective breeding of animals with higher value commercial traits,” CSIRO Livestock Industries scientist and one of the project’s group leaders, Dr Bill Barendse, said. “This technology is quickly transforming the dairy genetics industry and has the potential to dramatically alter beef cattle industries as well.”

These new genetic tools may provide a means to select more energy-efficient animals with a smaller environmental footprint, particularly animals that produce less greenhouse gas.

Dr Robert Sparrow, a bioethicist from Monash University, questioned the impact of the development, however, as he believes genetic breakthroughs in the livestock industry are not the key to sustainable food production.

“The beef industry essentially takes land and grain that could be used to support human beings and feeds them to cows,” he told the ABC. “Cattle are an incredibly inefficient way to produce food. They are a luxury food and if we were really concerned about the environment we would be eating a much more vegetarian diet.”