Australia Scientists in Sheep Gene Chase

Mon Aug 5, 7:23 AM ET



SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian scientists have begun work on an $8.1 million project to track down the gene that produces the meatiest lamb chops.

The sheep genomics project, which will study what sheep genes do and identify gene markers for desired characteristics, will also have the potential to identify parasite-resistant sheep, better disease tests and controls and deliver meatier lambs.

Funded by A$3 million a year in producer levies and matching federal government money, the five-year project is expected to produce the first full map of the sheep genome.

"The potential return to industry from basic research in this area of functional genomics is enormous," Meat & Livestock Australia's southern production research manager Hutton Oddy said in a statement.

The project will search for genes that determine muscle traits, meat quality and resistance to parasites and disease. It will also work on reproductive technologies to improve lamb survival and weaning percentages, Oddy said.

Intestinal parasites alone cost the Australian sheep industry more than A$300 million a year in chemical treatments and lost production. This was predicted to grow to A$1 billion by 2010, he said.

"The savings from the ability to identify sheep with parasite-resistant genes alone is huge," he said.

The project will bring together scientists from different fields, including geneticists, cell biologists, animal physiologists, veterinarians and others.

It would also draw on research already underway in sheep functional genomics in New Zealand, the United States and the European Union ( news - web sites), MLA said.