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Researchers unravel woolly history of sheep domestication

27 April 09

Research from Archaeological Sciences, The University of Bradford, has contributed to unravelling the woolly history of sheep domestication, by examining endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) preserved in the animal's DNA.

ERVs are like genetic fossils; remnants of ancient infections caught by sheep and their ancestors thousands of years ago whose DNA has been integrated into the genetic code of the animal and then passed on to subsequent generations.

Originally sheep were used primarily for their meat, but up until now it was not known where selection for secondary products like wool first took place. There was also, no genetic marker to know how to differentiate primitive breeds from modern ones.

However, a study contributed by Dr Ingrid Mainland, now suggests that the breeding of sheep for products such as wool occurred first in Southwest Asia, before spreading to Europe through secondary migrations that shaped the great majority of present-day sheep.

Researchers made their conclusions, through examining a particular group of endogenous retroviruses (enJSRVs) within the DNA of 1,362 sheep, from 133 different breeds. By examining the enJSRVs they were also able to differentiate primitive breeds from the more recently domesticated animals.

The research will have wider implications as being able to differentiate primitive breeds and modern ones will give a rational for indentifying and preserving rare gene pools.

Dr Mainland said: "This project has significant implications for understanding the development of sheep husbandry, in particular the use of wool by early farmers. The results may provide first genetic support for a much debated hypothesis, which suggests that human selection for wool-bearing sheep first occurred in SW Asia and then spread into Europe."

The research, in collaboration with Proferssor Massimo Palmarini, Institute of Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, was published in the journal Science, on Friday 24 April 2009.

27 April 09

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