Cow Genome Decoded -- Cheaper Beef for Everybody?

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(Related blog post: "Fish Oils Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Flatulent Cows.")

Genomic selection could also make cattle healthier by helping to fight ailments such as mad cow disease.

Breeders should be able to more effectively "breed out" such diseases over generations—and breed in genes identified as disease resistant, Lewin said.

Cow Evolution

The cow genome is also a window into what makes a cow a cow, including which genes give rise to a four-chambered stomach or protein-heavy milk.

Using the deciphered cow genome, scientists compared the genes of several breeds to paint a picture of cattle evolution.

Cattle were domesticated from aurochs—large, extinct European wild oxen—about 10,000 years ago and maintained a diverse ancestral population, the study shows.

Recent selective breeding for agriculture has rapidly reduced that diversity by propagating more of certain breeds and less of others. The trend could be amplified as the deciphered genome allows for even more precise breeding.

This could be of concern to animal breeders because species with low genetic diversity tend to be more vulnerable to disease and inbreeding, the study noted.

But the study also found but that the level of diversity is still on par with the human population, said Curt Van Tassell, a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Baltimore, Maryland, and study co-author.

"So I think we are still in very good shape," he said. "And beyond that, the tools that this technology gives us allow us to manage diversity at a whole new level. ... I think the outlook is quite bright."

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