Gene study shows how sheep first separated from goats

Scientists have cracked the genetic code of sheep to reveal how they became a distinct species from goats about four million years ago.

The study is the first to pinpoint the genetic differences which make sheep different from other animals. The findings could aid the development of DNA testing to speed-up selective breeding programmes, helping farmers to improve their stocks.

The research identifies the genes which give sheep their fleece and uncovers features of their digestive system, which makes them so well suited to a diet of low quality grass and other plants.

It also builds the most complete picture yet of the complex biology of sheep. Further studies using this resource could reveal new insights to diseases which affect sheep.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, were part of a global team which has decoded the genome sequence - the entire genetic make-up – of domestic sheep for the first time.

This team – the International Sheep Genomics Consortium – compared sheep genes with those of other animals, including humans, cattle, goats and pigs.

The analysis identifies several genes associated with wool production. It also reveals genes which underpin the evolution of the rumen – a specialised chamber of the stomach which breaks down plant material to make it ready for digestion.

Prof Alan Archibald, head of genetics and genomics at The Roslin Institute, says: “Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated for farming and are still an important part of the global agricultural economy. Understanding more about their genetic make-up will help us to breed healthier and more productive flocks.”

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