Getting Under A Sheep's Wool And Revealing The Secrets Of Its Genes

A flock of young male Gansu alpine wool sheep, in Zhangye, Gansu province, China.

Researchers have sequenced the sheep genome, pinpointing unique genes, including those which help secretion of the grease needed to maintain wool.

They also identified genes which may explain the sheep’s specialised digestive system and unique fat metabolism process which help maintain its thick, woolly coat.

Sheep are one of the first livestock domesticated by man, cultivated for their meat, milk and wool.

They have a unique digestive organ, the rumen, which turns plant material into a source of protein, and is found in other ruminants, including camels, sheep and cattle.

Beyond nutrition, the rumen generates a distinct type of fatty acid which may be linked to wool synthesis.

To explore the genetic foundations of sheep’s unusual evolutionary traits, Yu Jiang and colleagues assembled the reference genome sequences of Texel sheep, a breed originally from the Netherlands.

Scientists from CSIRO led the international research team to complete the sequencing, which could lead to more effective breeding strategies and new approaches to the management of sheep in Australia and around the world.

With about 70 millin head of sheep in Australia and 1 billion globally, the sequencing of the genome could have a massive impact for the rural economy.

“We investigated the completed genome to determine which genes are present in a process called gene annotation, which resulted in an advanced understanding of the genes involved in making sheep the unique animals that they are,” CSIRO project leader Dr Brian Dalrymple said.

“Given the importance of wool production, we focused on which genes were likely to be involved in producing wool. We identified a new pathway for the metabolism of lipid in sheep skin, which may play a role in both the development of wool and in the efficient production of wool grease (lanolin).”

The paper, “The sheep genome illuminates biology of the rumen and lipid metabolism,” by Y. Jiang at Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, and colleagues is published by Science.

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