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Moo-ve over mousie–the cow is a closer genetic match

May 14, 2009

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Who knew? It turns out cattle genes are more similar to human genes than those of mice, which have long been used as a model for human medical studies.

That’s one of the findings from an international research team that analysed the first genomic sequence of a mammalian livestock animal—the Hereford cow.

"Through analyzing this genome sequence with computers, we can learn a lot, not just about cows but also about ourselves, due to the degree of similarity of our genomes," says Fiona Brinkman, an SFU associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. She was among more than 300 scientists from 25 countries involved in the Bovine Genome Sequencing Project. Their work may help scientists pinpoint the genes that contribute to disease susceptibility, milk production and other traits. An associated Bovine HapMap project, which built upon the sequencing project, mapped the genetic diversity of 19 breeds of cattle worldwide.

The journal Science published the results of both studies and the BioMed Central journal series published companion papers. David Lynn, a postdoctoral research associate in Brinkman’s lab, led an analysis of adaptive evolution in the bovine genome. The team discovered that 70 of the cow’s 22,000 genes underwent unusual adaptations.

"Ten of these genes control immune functions; the rest govern a number of biological processes, including milk production," says Lynn. "Scientists have long believed that organisms’ immune-related efforts to overcome infectious diseases have led to adaptive evolution.

"Our research helps cement the theory that genes governing the immune system actually evolve more rapidly than other genes to help ensure a species’ survival."

Lynn predicts that as analysis procedures improve, scientists may discover even more genes that have been subject to adaptive evolution.

"Our research could help the cattle industry breed livestock that are more resistant to infectious diseases such as mastitis, a bacterial disease affecting the udder system," he says. "Such diseases are dramatically undermining milk production in a world with a rapidly increasing human population that needs food."

SFU faculty members Steven Jones, Marco Marra and Rob Holt and a graduate student in Brinkman’s lab, Matthew Whiteside, were also involved. Jones and Marra led sections that involved assembly and analysis of the bovine genome sequence at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Science Centre in Vancouver.

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