“New Zealand farmers produce good quality wool but there is still room for considerable improvement before our entire wool clip will receive the highest prices internationally,” said Dr Theopoline Itenge-Mwneza of Lincoln University.
Faults in wool such as low wool strength, discoloured fleece, and variations in fibre length and coarse fibres in fine wool limit the end used of wool and reduce the payout from wool buyers.
Dr Itenge-Mwenza from the Agriculture and Life Sciences Division undertook research with the assistance of the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority to find out whether the use of gene markers for wool quality has the potential to help farmers in their selection of sheep with improved wool qualities. A gene marker is a small piece of DNA that is associated with a trait or characteristic (of wool, in this case).
“In any population of animals there can be many different copies of a gene (called alleles) and this is called polymorphism or genetic variation,” said Dr Itenge-Mwenza
“Current methods of selective breeding are based on the quantitative measurement of trains and visual appraisals which, while useful, are hampered by the fact that some of the wool traits are only fully expressed when sheep mature and this means progress in breeding can be slow,” she said
Using the most up-to-date molecular biology techniques on samples taken from a flock of sheep that were mated with the same ram, Dr Itenge-Mwenza undertook an analysis of the wool genes to find gene markers with the potential to add value to selective breeding by increasing the accuracy and efficiency of selection. Previous research has shown that some of these genes may have roles in wool quality. Associate Professor Jon Hickford, who heads the Gene Marker Laboratory at Lincoln University, said that Theo’s work is another important step in the search to maximise the potential of our New Zealand sheep
“With the current down turn in wool prices in New Zealand it is important that this basic genetic research is carried out.”
Dr Itenge-Mwenza showed that has several keratin genes do have the potential to be useful markers of valuable traits and some of these genes had not been indentified previously as having a role in wool quality, in particular for, increased wool yield, whiter wool and higher wool intrinsic strength. She also established the frequencies of the “good” alleles of these genes in her sheep.
“These genetic markers may help farmers increase the accuracy and efficiency of selecting sheep with the wool characteristics they want and produce consistency in the wool they produce,” said Dr Itenge-Mwenza.
“Ultimately higher quality wool that is more consistent in quality will mean higher prices.”
Other wool research being carried out at Lincoln University is furthering Dr Itenge- Mwenza’s work on the role of genetic variation in controlling wool quality.
The research was funded by the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority and Lincoln University.
First published in Farmnews March 4, 2008