'Olimpia da Farfengo' the female Mediterranean water buffalo that researchers sequenced. Credit: Image by Caterina Cambuli.
'Olimpia da Farfengo' the female Mediterranean water buffalo that researchers sequenced.

Scientists unveil water buffalo genome

Domesticated water buffalo genome opens way for improved breeding and conservation of economically important animal.

An international team of researchers led by the University of Adelaide in Australia has published the full genome of the water buffalo — opening the way for improved breeding and conservation of this economically important animal.

The consortium of partners in Australia, Italy, China, Brazil and the U.S., with additional contributors in other countries, said they have now created the tools needed to apply modern molecular breeding systems to water buffalo.

“Water buffaloes were domesticated about 5,000 years ago and since then have been of economic importance for milk, meat and as a work animal around the world,” said consortium leader professor John Williams, director of the University of Adelaide’s Davies Research Center at the Roseworthy campus.

“They are particularly important in developing countries, and in specialized markets, they provide milk for products such as mozzarella cheese in Italy. The water buffalo is a key agricultural animal because it is able to adapt to diverse environments and is particularly tolerant of disease," Williams said. “In Australia, they were brought to Northern Territory in the early 19th century, and today there are milking herds of buffalo in Northern Territory and in South Australia.”

There are two subspecies of water buffalo. The researchers sequenced the genome of the river buffalo, which was selected for milk production through organized breeding programs in Italy, India, the Philippines and Brazil.

Williams said such advances in genomics have revolutionized dairy cattle breeding, and now the same molecular tools will be available for water buffalo breeding.

“The publication of the buffalo genome provides the essential reference point for studies on the molecular genetics of the buffalo,” Williams said. “It will help breeders to enhance commercially desirable characteristics in the water buffalo and researchers and conservationists to preserve the diversity of buffalo populations.”

The buffalo genome has been published in the journal GigaScience.

Research collaborator and joint lead author Dr. Daniela Iamartino, research and development technical manager at Italy's AIA-LGS (Italian Breeder Association — Laboratory of Genetics & Services), said, “It is also possible to compare the buffalo genome with that of other species to understand differences in the biology of buffalo and their ability to adapt to a wide variety of environments.

“The annotation of the genome identifies the genes present to explore their function and study the differences among species,” she added.

The consortium led by Williams has also published details of a specific molecular tool (called the Buffalo SNP chip) in the journal PLOS ONE. This chip will allow researchers and breeders to put the genome sequence information into practice. Genes that are involved in important traits related to production and disease can be located and used to estimate the breeding values of individual bulls and cows.

“This will offer buffalo breeders the same opportunities for accelerated genetics selection that is now used by cattle breeders,” Williams noted.

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