News Release

Scientists crack sheep genome, shining spotlight on rumen evolution and lipid metabolism

The latest study has been published online in Science

Peer-Reviewed Publication

BGI Shenzhen

Shenzhen, June 5, 2014--- The latest study, led by scientists from Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, BGI and other institutes, presents a high-quality sheep genome and reveals genomic and transcriptomic events that may be associated with rumen evolution and lipid metabolism that have relevance to both diet and wool. The work was published online today in Science.

Sheep are ruminants with a complex, 4-compartmented "stomach", the largest compartment is the rumen, which is thought to have evolved around 35-40 million years ago, and has the ability of converting the ligno-cellulose rich plant materials into animal protein. Wool is the most economic feature of the sheep, while the synthesis of wool is supposed to be linked to fatty acid metabolism. The genome data yielded in this study will lead to a better understanding of all those unusual evolution traits of sheep.

In this study, researchers assembled the sheep reference genome from two Texel individuals, and conducted RNA-Seq on 94 tissue samples (from 40 tissues), including 83 from four additional Texel individuals. The sheep assembly is around 2.61 Gb, with ~99% anchored onto the 26 autosomes and the X chromosome. They found many segmental duplications in sheep genome, and compared the sequences of sheep, goat, cattle, yak, pig, camel, horse, dog, mouse, opossum and human proteins and identified 4,850 single-copy orthologous genes from which they constructed a phylogenetic tree.

The gene-encoding proteins involved in keratinized epidermal structure development are relevant to the formation of the rumen, skin and wool. According to this study, researchers designated a non-annotated gene, Trichohyalin-like 2 (TCHHL2), and suggested it is specific to mammals. The role of TCHHL2 in sheep would be in cross-linking the keratins at the rumen surface. Besides, PRD-SPRRII family genes seemed to be the ruminant specific genes, which may be the result of the amplification and sequence divergence of SPRR2 gene. The function of PRD-SPRRII family proteins may be modified during the rumen evolution, and now have function in the cornification of the keratin-rich surface of the rumen.

To investigate the development of sheep's wool, researchers found a previously unrecognized gene representing subfamily of the late cornified envelope (LCE) genes, and named it LCE7A. LCE7A is expressed in skin of sheep, cattle and goat, but not in the rumen, and under positive selection in sheep. The researchers thought the expansion of LCE7A was associated with the wool formation.

Furthermore, researchers assumed that the MOGAT pathway in sheep skin may facilitate wool production. They found that the two genes- MOGAT2 and MOGAT3- undergone tandem gene expansions, were both expressed in sheep skin, not in liver. However, in humans, MOGAT3 is an important liver enzyme-encoding gene. They suggested the loss of MOGAT2 and MOGAT3 in liver may reduce the importance of liver in long chain fatty acid metabolism in ruminants compared to non-ruminants.

Min Xie, Project Manager from BGI, said, "Sheep is an important livestock with great economical value to provide people with meat, milk and fine wools. The availability of sheep genome provides us an opportunity to investigate the genetic basis of the rumen evolution and lipid metabolism in sheep skin. Based upon the genomic data in this study, more and more sheep-related studies could be conducted for expanding our understanding on this livestock. It also facilitates the maker-assisted selection for high-quality traits such as wool, meat, milk, among others."


About BGI

BGI was founded in 1999 with the mission of being a premier scientific partner to the global research community. The goal of BGI is to make leading-edge genomic science highly accessible through its investment in infrastructure that leverages the best available technology, economies of scale, and expert bioinformatics resources. BGI, which includes both private non-profit genomic research institutes and sequencing application commercial units, and its affiliates, BGI Americas, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, and BGI Europe, headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, have established partnerships and collaborations with leading academic and government research institutions as well as global biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, supporting a variety of disease, agricultural, environmental, and related applications.

BGI has established a proven track record of excellence, delivering results with high efficiency and accuracy for innovative, high-profile research which has generated over 250 publications in top-tier journals such as Nature and Science. These accomplishments include sequencing one percent of the human genome for the International Human Genome Project, contributing 10 percent to the International Human HapMap Project, carrying out research to combat SARS and German deadly E. coli, playing a key role in the Sino-British Chicken Genome Project, and completing the sequence of the rice genome, the silkworm genome, the first Asian diploid genome, the potato genome, and, most recently, have sequenced the human Gut metagenome, and a significant proportion of the genomes for 1,000 genomes. For more information about BGI please visit

Contact Information:

Bicheng Yang, Ph.D.
Public Communication Officer

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