Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Scientists in aurochs genome sequence first

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Highland cow
Cattle today are believed to be descended in most cases from Near East animals

Scientists have analysed the DNA of ancient giant European wild cattle that died out almost 400 years ago.

They have determined the first mitochondrial genome sequence from aurochs (Bos primigenius) from bone found in a cave in England.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down from a mother to her offspring.

One of the researchers involved, Dr Ceiridwen Edwards, has previously investigated the remains of a polar bear found in the Scottish Highlands.

The work was carried out at the University College Dublin's Animal Genomics Laboratory and Conway Institute using new technology that allows billions of base pairs of DNA to be sequenced.

The technology was similar to that used to analyse human hair preserved in Greenland's permafrost to give clues to what the owner, who lived 4,000 years ago, looked like.

The research has been published in scientific journal PloS ONE.

The aurochs were larger and maybe people didn't really want to mess with them
Dr Ceiridwen Edwards

The aurochs DNA was extracted from well-preserved bone recovered from a cave site in Derbyshire and radiocarbon-dated to the Mesolithic period more than 6,000 years ago.

The bone pre-dates the farming of animals in Britain by more than 1,000 years.

Dr Edwards said a project was now under way to sequence and assemble a complete aurochs nuclear genome by the end of the year.

While there are many copies of mtDNA to be found in cells there are only two copies of nuclear DNA - one from the father and one from the mother - making it harder to find.

Previous genetic studies have suggested most modern livestock are descended from cattle that arrived in Europe from the Neolithic Near East.

However, some aurochs may also have been domesticated.

Hunting range

Dr Edwards said the larger cattle were possibly harder for early farmers to manage.

She said: "My personal theory is the Near East cattle were smaller and more docile and easier to domesticate. The aurochs were larger and maybe people didn't really want to mess with them."

Aurochs were found in many parts of Great Britain, but not Ireland, and also populated most of Eurasia.

The species became extinct when a female animal died in a forest in Poland in 1627.

Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar was said to have been impressed by the size of aurochs.

Adolf Hitler wanted to recreate the cattle through selective breeding as a symbol of the Third Reich's belief in racial superiority.

Herman Goering, one of his commanders, wanted to introduce the animal to a hunting range planned for conquered Eastern Europe territories.

Polar bear

Scientists based at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, Sheffield and Leeds universities collaborated on the latest research and contributed to the paper published in PloS ONE.

The senior author is the project's coordinator Prof David MacHugh, of the Animal Genomics Laboratory.

The researchers hope funding will be secured to reopen the Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford where work on aurochs genome sequencing could be further developed.

Previously, Dr Edwards attempted to carry out DNA analysis of a sample taken from what are believed to be the only polar bear remains to have been found in Britain.

She had hoped to compare the DNA of the animal found in the Bone Caves at Inchnadamph in Sutherland with that of modern polar bears.

However, last February, she said there was not enough DNA left in the sample for an analysis to be done.

It was thought the bear was washed into the caves 18,000 years ago.

The skull was found in 1927 and is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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