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Two Holstein cows at the Dairy Barn at UC-Davis. (Greg Urquiaga/UC Davis)

National cow genomics project aims to uncover important genetic traits

Goal is to identify functional elements of cow’s genome.

The U.S. cattle industry generated more than $100 billion in farm cash receipts in 2016, representing the largest agricultural sector. Despite cattle’s economic importance, scientists still have a long way to go to fully understand mechanisms that govern important genetic traits in the animals, such as growth and disease resistance, according to an announcement from the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture has awarded UC-Davis $2.5 million over four years for a national cow genomics project. The research effort aims to allow the cattle industry to use genetics more efficiently to predict the traits their herds possess, the university said.

The bovine genome was first sequenced in 2009 and was one of the largest genomes ever sequenced.

“We have the code of the cow’s genome, but we don’t know what it means,” said Pablo Ross, an associate professor in the department of animal science at the UC-Davis College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences. He will lead the efforts and serve as project director.

“This project is like genome sequencing 2.0,” Ross said. “The goal is to identify the functional elements of the cow’s genome.” Understanding that information could open the door to improvements in genetic selection, which could lead to healthier, more productive livestock.

Several universities are involved in the project, including Virginia Tech, Texas A&M University, Iowa State University, Washington State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Idaho, Colorado State University and University of Vermont.

The grant is one portion of a $6 million grant USDA awarded to create three functional genomics projects. In addition to the UC-Davis-led project for cattle genomics, USDA awarded grants for swine genomics at Iowa State University and chicken genomics at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Cal.

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