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Sheep gene insights could help farmers breed healthier animals

Fresh insights into the genetic code of sheep could aid breeding programmes to improve their health and productivity.

Three examples of the Texel x Scottish Blackface sheep used in the sheep gene expression atlas project

Sheep have more than 20,000 different genes but not all of these are expressed in each tissue type in the body. Scientists have now mapped which genes are turned on and off in the different tissues and organs in a sheep’s body.

The team focused on genetic material called RNA, which is produced as an intermediate step when DNA code is translated into the proteins and molecules that make up cells and tissues. RNA serves as a functional read-out of exactly which genes are expressed in which tissues at any one time. Researchers at The Roslin Institute analysed the total RNA produced in each tissue of the sheep’s body.

Their findings shed new light on the animal’s complex biology, including insight into the function of genes linked to immunity and meat quality. The results represent a major step towards understanding how the sheep’s genetic information influences its physical traits. The findings also shed light on the function of hundreds of genes whose role was previously unknown.  

Researchers say the insights could eventually inform animal breeding programmes aimed at improving farmers’ stocks.

An online database has been created from the results, which is freely accessible to scientists working anywhere in the world. The researchers hope this resource will help to further understanding of the sheep’s genetic make-up.

This is largest resource of its kind.  Ongoing comparative analysis will provide insights to help us understand gene function across all large animal species, including humans.

Professor David Hume, who initiated the project, Roslin Institute

Sheep are a central part of the rural economy in the UK and are essential to sustainable agriculture across the globe.  The new resource represents a major step towards understanding how the sheep’s genetic information influences its physical traits, and provides a foundation to use this information to generate sustainable improvements in the productivity of livestock animals.

Dr Emily Clark, Project Coordinator, Roslin Institute

The project is a major contribution to the global Functional Annotation of ANimal Genomes (FAANG) initiative. The study, published in PLOS Genetics, was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC). The Roslin Institute also receives strategic funding from the BBSRC.

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Related links

  • Original Publication: A high resolution atlas of gene expression in the domestic sheep (Ovis aries), PLOS Genetics (2017).
  • Division of Genetics & Genomics: Structural and functional genomics
  • Institute Strategic Programme: Prediction of genes and regulatory elements in farm animal genomes
  • Research highlight: A high quality reference genome for sheep
  • European Network on Functional Annotation of Animal Genomes