How Now Brown Bos

Published on: 16:02PM Apr 29, 2009

The announcement made big news last week:  scientists have unraveled the genome for Bos Taurus, aka the domestic cow.  Of course, the health-related significance of that proclamation has quickly given way to current fears of pandemic flu, but it’s worth spending a moment to reflect on what it all means.


First, of course, it will be years, maybe many years, before the commercial impact of the gene sequencing is felt.  After all, it’s been nearly a decade since the human genome was decoded, and the result of that has been faint, for most people.  So we have to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.


But because genes are the blueprints for all living things, having a better understanding of how cattle are wired will be crucial to helping breed better livestock.  Using selective breeding techniques for centuries, humans have done a commendable job of supercharging the ancient auroch, but delving down to the DNA level will accelerate that process.  And it’s worth acknowledging that selective breeding can create bottlenecks where genetic diversity can be as homogenous as a glass of milk.  Genomics will help us bust out of those bottlenecks.


It’s interesting to see in this Associated Press story that cattle and humans have roughly the same number of genes, and share about 80% of them.  This Washington Post article also notes that the genome project allows us to see how mankind has shaped the evolution of cattle into the world’s most important animal, at least as far as nutrition is concerned. 


This also reflects on my most recent post, about animal welfare and the meaning of stewardship.  In terms of today’s dairy and beef cattle, there is no longer a wild, free-ranging equivalent.  The auroch’s been gone for four centuries.  Opening the barn door and letting cows get back to nature would not improve animal welfare, since domesticated livestock can no longer be yoked to some primitive, more natural point in time.  We’ve hitched a ride on their backs, and vice versa.  They’ve moved on, and so has the world.  The genetic blueprint is also a roadmap for the future, and it tells us that we have a responsibility to be good stewards of this breed  Along that road, however, we’re the drivers.