Scientists have cracked the code of the genetic make-up of sheep, with the help of Kiwi research.

Otago University and AgResearch were among the organisations in the international research team, which was able to complete the first sequencing of the entire sheep genome.

Dr Jo-Ann Stanton of Otago's department of anatomy is a co-author on the paper detailing the genome.

The research means scientists were able to pinpoint genes which are unique to sheep, which could lead to more effective breeding strategies and new approaches to sheep management.


Sequencing of the genome could have a massive impact for the rural economy, aiding the production of wool, meat and milk, the scientists said.

"We investigated the completed genome to determine which genes are present in a process called gene annotation, which resulted in an advanced understanding of the genes involved in making sheep the unique animals that they are," Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) project leader Dr Brian Dalrymple said.

"Given the importance of wool production, we focused on which genes were likely to be involved in producing wool. We identified a new pathway for the metabolism of lipid in sheep skin, which may play a role in both the development of wool and in the efficient production of wool grease (lanolin)."

The results of the eight-year project were published in the journal Science, and is part of the International Sheep Genomics Consortium, involving 26 institutions across eight countries.

The scientists were also able to identify a number of new genes which were specific to the rumen -- a modified stomach full of micro-organisms vital for the digestion of a sheep's diet -- as well as one which appears to be present in most mammals but has so far only been expressed in ruminants.

"The genomic resources built by the team will provide a strong foundation for the detailed exploration of the similarities and differences between sheep and humans at the molecular level, and hopefully lead to improved medical treatments for a number of conditions such as sepsis and asthma."