Researchers receive $3 million to study pig, cow genomes

Researchers receive $3 million to study pig, cow genomes


By Debra Levey Larson

U of I College of ACES

Media/Communications Specialist

URBANA, Ill.—Three University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers were recently awarded $3 million to use over a five-year period to create comprehensive genome maps of the pig and the cow.

“It took a billion dollars to sequence the human genome,” said Lawrence Schook, animal science geneticist. “The National Institutes of Health had this huge investment in technology, people and equipment, and they finished early, so they decided to use the remainder of the resources to sequence the genomes of other species.”

The research funded by USDA will be the first step toward sequencing the cow and pig genomes.

Schook, along with Jonathan Beever and Harris Lewin, who are also animal science geneticists at the U of I in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), were selected to develop detailed maps of the cow and the pig using the facilities at the U of I’s Keck Center. For about 10 years, the three researchers have been studying genes that have an economic impact such as disease resistance, lactation and growth. Schook and Beever study cows, and Lewin studies pigs.

Schook explained that in the evolutionary sense, cows, pigs and humans have something in common—a placenta. But they have enough differences to make contrasting easy. “Having the gene maps and sequences of other species, particularly other mammals, will help us better understand the human genome.”

“There are hidden secrets in the coding,” said Lewin. “Only a small part of the genes encode protein. About 5 percent of gene coding of the cow, the pig and the human is very similar. Another 5 percent is similar but non-coding. The other 90 percent is what we call ‘DNA glue.’ It either doesn’t do anything, or codes unknown functions.”

Geneticists think that minor differences in the 5 percent of the coding that is similar and the 5 percent that is the same but non-coding DNA is what makes a cow a cow and a pig a pig. By looking at gene sequences for different species side-by-side, comparing and contrasting, scientists can better understand how cows, pigs and humans evolved.

“The honey bee genome, for example, was relatively simple to map because of its smaller size,” said Lewin, “and although very different from humans, it is hard-wired genetically for certain behaviors so we can learn something about human social behavior and aggression from the honey bee.” That work is being performed by University of Illinois entomologist Gene Robinson.

Schook said: “We were very fortunate. I was at the U of I for a number of years and then left. I came back because I wanted to do genetic work that would help agriculture. This project was presented many years ago when I was here the first time but didn’t get funded. This was the right time, because of the extra years of funding available and the great technological advances made in genomics.”

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