Researcher Dr Jo-Ann Stanton (right) and other members of a
University of Otago anatomy department team, Christy Rand
(left) and Chris Mason, were involved in earlier
collaborative work to help sequence the sheep genome. Photo
University of Otago anatomy researcher Dr Jo-Ann Stanton
is ''over the moon'' at contributing to successful
international efforts to sequence the sheep genome, and
pinpoint genes unique to sheep.
Dr Stanton, a senior research fellow, began her involvement
with the project in 2007 when she was co-ordinating a
high-throughput DNA sequencing unit at the department.
A state-of-the-art sequencing machine at the unit was used to
undertake some of the initial work for the overall project,
at ''an incredibly exciting time'' for the Otago researchers,
By comparing its genetic underpinnings to those of other
mammals, the international researchers have identified genes
that may explain the sheep's specialised digestive system and
the sheep's unique fat metabolism process, which helps
maintain its thick, woolly coat.
Dr Stanton is a co-author of a paper detailing the sheep
genome, which has just been published in the leading
international journal Science. The work was undertaken by the
International Sheep Genome Consortium, and Dr Stanton and her
team worked closely with John McEwan and other colleagues
from AgResearch on the project.
''I'm very happy with where it got to,'' she said.
The overall project had been a ''massive challenge'', and Dr
Stanton was pleased to have played a small part in the wider
Because sheep were an important agricultural species, the
results of this effort would provide crucial resources for
future research on the animal.
Knowledge gleaned from the international effort was also
likely to benefit New Zealand agriculture significantly in
the future, she said. Sheep are some of the first livestock
domesticated by man, cultivated for their meat, milk and
To explore the genetic foundations of the sheep's unusual
evolutionary traits, the researchers assembled the reference
genome sequences of Texel sheep, a breed originally from the
To clarify the evolutionary relationships among sheep and
other mammals based on genetic differences, the researchers
constructed a phylogenetic tree that compared standard
representative genomes among ruminants and other related
The lineage leading to modern-day sheep separated from goats
and other ruminants, they say, in the late Neogene period,
which ended about 2.6 million years ago.