IN what has likely been the largest research collaboration ever undertaken in cattle, a study headed up in Australia has delved into sequencing of ancient DNA and pinpointed complex genetic traits.
While this initial work has honed in on the height of cattle, it has paved the way in big data global teamwork for mapping high-value traits like feed efficiency, milk production and reduced methane emissions.
It has also opened the doors to the concept of researchers working in cattle and human genomics sharing data on traits such as temperament and body fatness.
Professor Ben Hayes, from the University of Queensland, leads the international 1000 Bull Genomes Consortium of 57 researchers from 30 institutes and says the appetite is now enormous for pooling data resources in order to take the world of cattle genomics forward.
“What we have learnt is the effect of genes is so small and there are so many of them, we need very big numbers to accurately identify traits,” he said.
“Everybody around the world is realising we can pull together enormous data sets to work out what effect genes are to the benefit of all cattle breeders.”
This study saw the genomic datasets and phenotypes collected from a whopping 58,000 cattle around the world to gain a clear picture of the trait that affects height.
In an interesting twist, researchers looked at the DNA sequencing from a 6500-year-old wild auroch bone - the ancestor of modern cattle - and made a prediction of its height.
That was then verified with fossil records from auroch skeletons.
Moderate stature cattle are often more profitable, Prof Hayes said.
However, the traits the global researchers will now move onto will have a greater direct benefit for cattle breeders.
The work is about delivering more accurate and relevant DNA screening, the uptake of which is fast increasing in Australia.
In the past ten years, the cost of a DNA test in cattle has dropped from $2000 to $50 and Prof Hayes believes it will come down further.
“The uptake has been excellent in breeds like Angus and Brahman in Australia and the better this technology works the higher the uptake will be,” Prof Hayes said.
When his team applied its findings to the genetic datasets collected for humans and dogs, they were surprised to find there was a high degree of overlap.
“The same genes influencing height in cattle also influence the trait in other mammalian species - this is something that has never been demonstrated before,” Prof Hayes said.