December 22, 2003


New US$53 Million Bovine Genome Study May Unravel BSE Mysteries


An international bovine genome study involving the University of Alberta may help in to fight against mad cow disease (BSE), says the University of Alberta's lead researcher on the project. The US Department of Agriculture launched this study, which is expected to cost US$53 million. Stephen Moore, a professor in the agriculture faculty, said the study will unravel the mysteries of cattle genetics, and also provide insights into the reasons of animals contracting BSE.


"There is a lot about the bovine genome we don't know, such as how does a protein that the animal needs to survive get corrupted and cause BSE? How does that corrupted protein get from the gut of the animal to the brain?


"Our role will be to make sure the right questions are asked," he said.


A single case of BSE in an Alberta cow last spring was responsible for more than $1 billion in lost Canadian beef sales. In rare cases, the brain-wasting disease in cattle has been known to spread to humans.


The Bovine Genome Sequencing Project will create a blueprint of the functions played by genes in the makeup of cattle. It will be similar to the human genome project.


Bovine genome sequencing is expected to take two years to complete.


"We don't know what 90% of bovine genes do," said Moore, chairman of the University of Alberta's beef genomics initiative.


The research is being carried out by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.


The British Columbia Cancer Agency and Genome B.C., both in Vancouver, are partners.


Moore said the genome mapping will take place in Houston and Vancouver, while the U of A will provide the live specimens for the study at its ranch at Kinsella, southeast of Edmonton.


The Alberta government and the beef industry have spent more than $2.4 million over the last three years studying the bovine genome, Moore said.


The University of Alberta's share of the research includes trying to find out why some cattle eat less than others, but produce the same amount and quality of meat.


"We're looking at genetic variations within the same breed, sometimes from the same bull, where one animal makes more efficient use of food than others," Moore said.


"That can have significant implications as far as lowering costs -- while producing the same amount and quality of meat -- (and) reducing wastes, such as carbon dioxide, methane gas and manure."