Sheep breeders could benefit from new gene insights

Why are sheep the way they are?

Whether you enjoy pondering abstract questions about the nature of things or not, scientists sure do. And scientists wondering why sheep are the way they are have recently gained new insight, which they hope will help farmers raise stronger, healthier and more productive flocks.

At the Roslin Institute, part of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, researchers studying the genome of sheep have identified which specific genes are turned off and on in different parts of the body. Their findings could help breeders create animals that are immune to diseases and that produce higher quality meat and wool. The new insights also explain the function of previously-not-understood genes.

“Sheep are a central part of the rural economy in the U.K. and are essential to sustainable agriculture across the globe,” said Dr. Emily Clark, who coordinated the research. “The new resource represents a major step towards understanding how the sheep’s genetic information influences its physical traits, and provides a foundation to use this information to generate sustainable improvements in the productivity of livestock animals.”

How’d they do it?

The scientists got their results by looking at sheep RNA. RNA allows cells to produce protein by becoming “DNA photocopies” of the cell, which then translate the genetic code into protein using parts of the molecule called ribosomes.

RNA also functions as a guide to which genes are expressed in different parts of the body at any point in time, so the team was able to read the total amount of RNA produced in each tissue in the sheep’s body.

The results of the research are available on the Functional Annotation of Animal Genomes (FAANG) global online database, a collaboratively built resource that provides information on genes and genomes to scientists anywhere in the world. The database is for scientists working to understand the “functional elements” of already-sequenced genomes, underpinning “improvements in the livestock sector, contributions to medical research, animal health and welfare, the evolution of domestication, and the understanding of natural animal populations.”

“This is the largest resource of its kind,” said Dr. David Hume, a lead researcher on the project. “Ongoing comparative analysis will provide insights to help us understand gene function across all large animal species — including humans.”

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