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USU ag dean wins USDA grant to map sheep genome

December 1st, 2009 Posted in Opinion

By Chelsey Gensel

LOGAN–Utah State University’s Dean of Agriculture and Vice President of Extension, Noelle Cockett, has acquired a $930,000 USDA grant toward a genome-mapping project to sequence and analyze the sheep genome.

Labs at USU and in other parts of the country as well as in the U.K., France, New Zealand and Australia are studying differences in characteristics between various breeds of sheep, including the Texel which provided its blood for the isolation of DNA to be replicated and ordered from millions of small sections into the entire ovine (sheep) genome.

The project’s goal is to accurately map 95 percent of the sheep’s genes and isolate sections for various characteristics such as milk production, bone deformities and parasite resistance.

The latter is currently being studied in USU’s biotechnology lab, which carries out research related to Dean Cockett’s project. Multiple smaller grants like the nearly million-dollar one specifically aimed at the analysis of the genome once it has been assembled aid lab manager Tracy Hadfield and team of several undergraduate, graduate and post-doctorate students in finding the genes responsible for parasite resistance in certain sheep breeds. Their findings and similar research on other characteristics can then eventually help breeders compensate for weaknesses or breed better sheep, said Mary McMillan, a molecular biology graduate student who works in the lab.

Mapping the entire ovine genome will provide a point of reference for all of this and future research, Cockett said, and has bearing on human and other species’ genetic research as well.

Characteristics like multiple births in sheep may come from the same portion of the human genome responsible for fertility, similarly to a trait Cockett described called spider-lamb syndrome, in which lambs’ bones grow more than is normal and bend inward. Researchers have discovered that the gene sequence responsible for that deformity is positioned in the same place on the human genome, where the trait responsible for dwarfism can be found.

“It’s the same part of the genome but with an opposite effect in lambs and humans,” Cockett said.

These discoveries may help human geneticists determine genetic factors inter-related in various species and studying them at USU gives lab technicians experience that they can use for any species.

“The students in the lab aren’t just biology majors, there are some in elementary education and other majors as well,” she said. The experience they gain from the processes used in the lab are the same techniques used in the medical field to determine a person’s chances of getting colon cancer, for example, Cockett said.

“Having taken biology, I’ve heard about things that I now get to actually experience hands on,” said Ryan Nelson, a philosophy major who works in the lab. He said the sheep’s blood they use is broken down to isolate only the DNA, and then find specific parts of the DNA that may match with those parts in the genome maps of other species which have already been assembled.

Cockett said these animals include humans, cattle, pigs, dogs, elephants, honeybees and even some fish. She said the human genome took billions of dollars to map, cattle took about $55 million, and she expects to compelte the ovine project with just $2 million.

With the sheep genome sequence, which will take about 18 months to be fully assembled, farmers may be able to get more productive animals, just as human geneticists can help make people healthier and learn about genetics and environment and how they relate, she said.

The grant took two and a half years to conceptualize and was written in June 2009, Cockett said, between an international team for which she coordinates the United States’ effort.

“It was a lot of fun to develop a grant in this way, it’s not just about when the money comes, it’s about the development,” she said.

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