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New light shed on the domestication history of sheep and goats

20 March 2018

Four sheep in a field

New research has shed light on the mystery of how sheep and goats became domesticated over 10,000 years ago.

Sheep and goats are two of the most important domestic species in livestock and research from the Cardiff University School of Biosciences has traced the animal’s domestication ancestry.

The new research has uncovered clues to the root of the development of these animals into the domesticated sheep and goats that have played a huge role in human history and agriculture.

Dr Pablo Orozco-terWengel, researcher at Cardiff University, said: “Sheep and goats were domesticated near the fertile crescent approximately 10,500 years ago.

“We investigated the domestication history of these two species by comparing their genes to their wild ancestors – the Asiatic mouflon and the Bezoar ibex.”

Asiatic Mouflon

By comparing the genetic profiles of wild breeds of sheep and goats with local, traditional and improved breed, the research uncovered areas of genetic code that played significant roles in the domestication process of wild species that has turned them into the well-known farm animals that we see today.

Professor Mike Bruford, Cardiff University, said: “These comparisons revealed a dynamic history, indicating population growth and bottlenecks of the wild ancestors.

“It also shows that genetic regions linked with factors important in the domestication process, such as physical behavioural traits, were strongly affected.”

The study showed that during the selective breeding process similar genes were targeted, morphing the wild Asiatic mouflon and Bezoar ibex into domesticated sheep and goats over the course of 10,000 years. But these genes behaved differently to how the researchers would have expected.

“We also found that the same genetic traits were under selection during the domestication in both goats and sheep.

“The most remarkable observation is that selection in the same gene in the two different species happened in different and unexpected ways. Moreover, even though these selection patterns were different, they resulted in similar traits in both species.

“We now better understand the process of selective breeding and its relation to the genes of domestic sheep and goats.

“We used to think that when two species have similar physical traits and are closely related, like sheep and goats, that the same genes probably reacted in the same way to selective breeding.

“However, what we see here is that you can end up with similar characteristics, the same gene under selection, but radically different ways in which the gene changed,” added Dr Pablo Orozco-terWengel.