An enormous international effort to map the sheep genome, published today, has already had very valuable spin-offs for New Zealand agriculture.
The paper, which has been published in the prestigious journal Science, represents eight years’ work by researchers in eight countries, 26 institutions with 73 authors.
AgResearch principal scientist John McEwan is one of the paper’s authors. He says New Zealand scientists have been using the information from the project for the last six to seven years as it has been generated. “It has allowed us to do a whole lot of things that were previously impossible.The international effort produced a very high quality assembly of the sheep genome. Associated work has identified more than 30 million DNA variants and, because of the assembly, we know the order of all those variants as well,” he says.
“It has enabled us to create low, medium and now high density ovine SNP chips. As a result, we have implemented genomic selection in sheep and New Zealand has been world-leading in this regard. It has also meant that the pace of discovery of gene variants affecting production and disease traits has advanced much more rapidly internationally.”
The information was used to create the 50K SNP chip which is being used to develop genetic selection in the majority of the New Zealand dual purpose sheep for 22 traits as part of the Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ Ltd) and AgResearch-funded Ovita project. These include facial eczema, parasite resistance, number of lambs born, meat yield and adult ewe liveweight. Commercial implementation uses lower density chips developed from 50K results.
“This technology has proven useful for hard-to-measure traits which are recorded late in life,” says McEwan. “We have also used this information to develop parentage assays that are now widely used in the industry and around the world.”
Use of the low and medium density (5K and 50K) SNP chips has been estimated to generate $200 million for the NZ industry over the next 15 years.
The sequencing for the early work was done at the University of Otago and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas while more recent sequencing has been done at BGI in China, Baylor and the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. B+LNZ Ltd chief executive Dr Scott Champion says the work was underpinned by the huge commitment New Zealand sheep farmers have made to genomic research through their earlier investments in Ovita.
Material supplied by AgResearch.