Research into the DNA of cows is being used to help produce better dairy and beef cattle, but it could also improve the health and lifespan of humans. Nick Drainey reports.
Scientists from Scotland’s Rural College discovered telomeres – which protect the end of chromosomes – deteriorate most in the weeks and months after birth, indicating how long and healthy an animal may live.
Their research, which also found factors such as illness and stress can affect a telomere, can now also be used to help human geneticists looking at how we can live better and prolong our life expectancy.
Professor Mike Coffey and his team studied 700 cows from the award-winning Langhill herd of cows housed at Crichton Royal Farm in Dumfries, taking more than 2,000 blood samples.
He said: “The data we have collected is the biggest in the world on repeat measure of telomere length on the same animal over time so it is very valuable. We can inform the human geneticists.”
Prof Coffey says he will use the research to find ways of producing better dairy and beef cattle. He explained: “We found that most of the loss of telomere length takes place early in the animal’s life.
Cells divide rapidly early in life so the argument is that animals who are born with longer telomeres have a greater chance of survival before the shorter telomeres limit their lives.”
The easy to obtain biological marker can be used for selection in animals, for example longer telomeres mean they live longer so would be better for dairy or breeding and shorter would be better used for fattening up for beef.
Tests can also look at the lengths of telomeres in the offspring of specific bulls to decide which ones are best for breeding.
"That would provide information for a farmer to make an appropriate decision early on in the animal’s life," added Prof Coffey.
Gene editing is a long way off but could come into the equation.
“If we find telomere length is affected by a single gene, in the future we might be able to gene edit that gene so it is carried favourably by the sire.”
Although humans cannot have their telomeres altered genetically, the study of their deterioration is helping scientists prolong life.
Telomeres reduce every time a cell divides because the repair mechanism that puts the DNA strands back together is not 100 per cent effective so a little bit is lost each time.
“Gene editing aside you can imagine people being interested to know what the likelihood of survival is for the next 50 years," said Prof Coffecy.
"It is not infeasible that they could alter life patterns – eating and exercise behaviour – because if it looks like they do not have much longer to go based on their telomere prediction they might make sure that the few years they do have left are healthy ones.”
Professor Melissa Bateson, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, said: “I think the animal work is really important for helping us make sense of what is going on.”
She adds that animal work is important as it can also include experiments, unlike human research into telomeres.
She said: “If you show that stress is causal in shortening telomeres in animals, it gives more credence to the idea that something similar may be going on in humans.”