Cow Genome Decoded -- Cheaper Beef for Everybody?

April 23, 2009

The humble cow has now had its entire genome sequenced, a new study says.

Six years in the making, the feat could lead to healthier, cheaper beef and milk, according to scientists.

A genome is the full set of genes that gives rise to a particular species. Genes are combinations of chemical "letters" that determine animals' and plants' physical traits, from hair color to body shape.

Using the newly decoded cow genome, "you are going to be able to predict an animal's performance on the basis of its [genetic makeup]," biologist Harris Lewin said.

Cow breeders should be able to identify genes responsible for desirable traits and match cows to produce calves with those traits.

This "genomic selection" should enable breeders to raise cows that require less feed and produce lean meat, for example.

Less feed means lower costs for farmers—savings that presumably would be passed on to the consumer.

These improvements, Lewin added, will be important, in part because people in the developing world are likely to eat more meat as their standards of living rise, driving up demand for beef.

"There're some societies that exist primarily on meat and dairy products. It's just part of the culture," said Lewin, who led two research teams on the sequencing project and wrote a commentary on the results, to be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Green Meat Never Sounded So Good

Genome-informed breeding could also be good for the environment, Lewin said.

"Just dealing with feed efficiency will help reduce greenhouse gases"—for example, by lessening cow burps, which encourage global warming—"and provide more food for human populations," he said.

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