Until four hundred years ago, a wild, long-horned ancestor of cattle roamed across much of Europe. The last of these stately creatures — known as aurochs — went extinct in the 1600s.
But what if there were a way to bring them back?
Last year David MacHugh, a professor of genomics at University College Dublin in Ireland, and his colleagues sequenced the first aurochs genome in December, reporting their findings in the journal Genome Biology. And MacHugh thinks it may be possible to recreate an aurochs (the singular and plural form of the word for the animal) someday, thanks to advances in gene editing technology.
How the aurochs gave rise to modern cattle
The aurochs (Bos primigenius) was once found throughout Eurasia, from China to what is now Great Britain, and as far south as India. They expanded into Europe as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age and more of their habitat opened up.
Scientists divide them into three different subspecies: Northern Eurasian, Southern Asian, and North African. The Eurasian aurochs are thought to have been domesticated about 10,500 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region in what is now the Middle East, giving rise to so-called “humpless” cattle. The Indian aurochs were domesticated about 1,500 years later in India, as what are called “humped” cattle.
As farmers migrated into Europe from Asia with their domesticated cattle, the wild aurochs in Europe started to die out. The last one went extinct in a Polish forest in 1627, and a Polish king used its horn as a drinking horn, MacHugh said.
Still, until recently, scientists didn’t know whether the European aurochs ever interbred with domesticated cattle. They got an answer in December, when MacHugh and his colleagues sequenced the genome of a British aurochs that was bone carbon-dated to almost 6,800 years ago. By comparing its genome with those of modern cattle, they found evidence to suggest that the aurochs crossbred with ancestors of English, Scottish, and Irish heritage cattle breeds.
The researchers also found changes in genes involved in neurobiology, sensory perception, reproduction, and other behaviours, which resulted from generations of human breeding.
Bringing back the aurochs
Some people are interested in the idea of returning an ecosystem to its natural wilderness state by reintroducing the key species that lived there — a process known as rewilding. In the case of the aurochs, some have hope that it could help maintain Europe’s native grassland environments.
But now that we have the aurochs genome, how would we actually go about bringing them back from extinction? There are two possible approaches, which MacHugh outlined:
- Selective breeding: This would involve breeding modern cattle to have the same physical and behavioural features of an aurochs, by selecting for traits like massive horns, muscular shoulders, a slim body, and (in males) a tendency to fight. There have been some attempts to create an aurochs-like animal, like the Heck cattle bred in Germany in the 1920s. But as MacHugh pointed out, the result of these efforts “would look like an aurochs and behave like an aurochs, but it won’t be an aurochs.”
- Gene editing: In this approach, scientists would take genes from the aurochs genome and, using modern gene editing techniques, insert them into the egg cell of a related, living species of cow. The same concept has been proposed for bringing back the woolly mammoth, using an Asian elephant as a surrogate. This may be possible within the next 10 to 20 years, MacHugh said. But in practice, you would only be tweaking a fraction of its hundreds of thousands of genes, and it would be very expensive.
Although bringing back the aurochs might take a lot of money and effort, now that we have cracked its genetic code, we have the ability. Now, all we need is the will to make it happen.
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