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African cattle are not an inferior breed - scientists

Smart Harvest By Maureen Akinyi | February 21st 2021 at 10:00:00 GMT +0300
Chairlady of Esupuko CBO Brookside in Kajiado, Laisa Mpoye, at her home in Kajiado where she has 300 Zebu cows. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Scientists have discovered new information on African cattle that is paving the way for breeding of livestock with increased productivity and resilience. The scientists, discovered that African cattle have valuable traits such as heat and drought tolerance, capacity to control inflammation and tick infestation as well as resistance to diseases such as trypanosomiasis.

They further found that in some regions of Africa, animals cope better with diseases such as foot and mouth disease and the Rift Valley fever.

The findings of the study published in the October issue of Nature Genetics came from a collaborative effort in sequencing genomes of 172 indigenous cattle by scientists at the Addis Ababa, Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and other institutions.

How did they conduct the study?

The researchers picked animal samples from their DNA, dissected it and looked at what is equivalent to a slide rule to find out which genomic areas and regions are associated with proteins that make it possible for an animal to develop immune responses or ability to withstand high temperatures.

They further lined it up with which type of animal is associated with which type of attribute and the genetic makeup.

“We believe these insights can be used to breed a new generation of African cattle with qualities of European and American livestock (more milk and meat)—but with the rich traits that make African cattle more resilient and sustainable,” said Olivier Hanotte, the principal scientist at ILRI and professor of genetics at the University of Nottingham.

Mr Hanotte and his colleagues engaged in what they termed “genomic time travel”, which allowed scientists to retrace the genetic journey that has made the African cattle so adaptable.

Ally Okeyo Mwai, the principal scientist at ILRI, said this discovery confirms African livestock have not been inferior, as earlier thought.

“This discovery is critical in shaping what the future of breeding strategies should be. We now know that African cattle populations are not as inferior as earlier thought,” said Mr Mwai.

“This discovery means that a mosaic type of animal that combines the humped and the non-humped types work best for the African farmer because of their ability to cope with the local environment. The genomic regions covered in the study make animals more tolerant to heat and able to conserve more water.”

Steve Kemp, co-author and leader of ILRI’s LiveGene programme, said what is being witnessed in African livestock is a result of what happened about 750 to 1,050 years ago with the arrival of Asian cattle breeds in East Africa.

The genome sequencing work showed that indigenous pastoralist herders began breeding the Asian Zebu cattle with local breeds such as Taurine. The Zebu offered traits that allowed cattle to survive in a hot and dry climate in the Horn of Africa.

“This discovery means that an animal that has the combined traits of humped and nonhumped cattle traits, works best for the African farmer because they can cope with the local environment. The genomic regions covered in the study make the animals more tolerant to heat and able to conserve more water, the two conditions that ravage the environment in Africa,” said Mwai.

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