BETHESDA, Md., March 4 (UPI) -- The National Institutes of Health revealed Tuesday it plans to begin sequencing the genome or the layout of the genes of the cow as early as September, a project officials said could lead to a better understanding of the genetic basis for human health and disease.
"By comparing the human genome with the genomes of different organisms, we can better understand the structure and function of human genes and thereby develop new strategies in the battle against human disease," National Human Genome Research Institute Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said in a written statement.
"The more genomes we have, the more powerful this tool becomes," Collins said.
In addition to the human genome, researchers have completed draft or final copies of the genetic sequence of yeast and the roundworm, mouse and rat. Plans also are underway to sequence the genomes of the chimpanzee, a primate called a rhesus macaque and the chicken.
The Genome Institute said it has agreed to put up half of the $50 million expected cost for the cow genome project. The Texas state government has said it will contribute $10 million and Gov. Rick Perry offered to help raise the remaining $15 million needed to fund the project, which could begin as early as September if the necessary financing is arranged by then, the Genome Institute said.
The genome of Bos taurus, the cow, would be useful because it is evolutionarily distant from humans and would give scientists a better idea of which genetic sequences are important in people, Jane Peterson a geneticist and associate director of extramural research at NHGRI, told United Press International.
By comparing genomes, researchers can identify genes or sequences shared among organisms, Peterson said. A sequence found in all animals indicates it has been retained during evolution because the genetic information it contains is important to the life of the organisms in some way, she said.
This in turn may shed light on important genes in humans and "may have implications for how the human genome functions and then that obviously translates into disease genes, et cetera," Peterson said.
"We need to get organisms that are well-spaced throughout the evolutionary tree to do these comparisons" and the cow fills an important gap, she said. The other mammals that have been sequenced -- rats and mice -- are more closely related to humans than the cow.
The cow genome also will be useful in agriculture, Peterson said. It "adds the ability to start selecting traits for certain characteristics (and) enhance breeding programs," she said.
The cow has been used in the past as a research animal to gain insight into human reproduction, hormones and other areas, so it does share some similarities with humans and decoding its genome could be beneficial to people, said George Weinstock, a geneticist and co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where the bulk of the sequencing will be done.
One potential application is for understanding "diseases that cows get that humans might get like mad cow disease," Weinstock told UPI.
"It won't be radical things, it will be subtle differences," he added. Rats, cows and humans "all have the same sort of proteins but different numbers" and scientists will be interested in detecting "slight differences in gene structure and how and when they are expressed. That's what we want to look for," he said.
Barbara Wold, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, agreed with Weinstock about the importance of detecting differences in gene expression.
"I'm struck by the contribution the genome of the cow will make immediately in understanding (elements) of the genome engaged in regulating when and where and how much a given gene is expressed," Wold said.
"Finding those regulatory elements is critical and it is very much helped by having (the) genome of the cow," she said.
Weinstock said it will take about three years to finish the project.