I thought the deciphering of the genetic make-up of a cow or what is scientifically called as genome should be a big news in the land of holy cows. But no, I was wrong. The news is tucked away in some corner of the newspapers, and the electronic media didn't find it worth a mention. Nor has it evoked any reaction and response, good or bad, from the scientific community, researchers, activists and the so called champions of the holy cow.
The sequencing of the cow genome, reported in the journal Science last week, is certainly a landmark development. It has taken 300 scientists from 25 countries, led by US Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Health in the US, some six years and $ 53 million in research spending, to map and analyse the cow genome.
According to media reports, sequencing of the bovine genome began in December 2003. The breed of cattle selected for the bulk of the sequencing project was Hereford, which is used in beef production. Sequencing at lighter coverage will be carried out in additional cattle breeds, including the Holstein, Angus, Jersey, Limousin, Norwegian Red and Brahman (which is a cross with some Indian breeds).
Let us first look at some of the salient findings as reported by Associated Press (AP):
-- Modern cattle developed from a diverse ancestral population from Africa, Asia and Europe, that has undergone a recent rapid decrease in population size, probably due to domestication.
-- The genome of the domestic cattle contains approximately 22,000 genes, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 for humans.
-- Cattle and humans have about 80 percent of their genes in common
-- The organization of human chromosomes is closer to that of domestic cattle than to those of rats or mice, which are often used in lab tests of drugs intended for people.
-- Cattle chromosomes, like those of humans and other mammals, contain segmental duplications, which are large, almost identical copies of DNA present in at least two locations in a genome.
I can understand the excitement that the sequencing of the cow genome has thrown up for the beef and cattle industry. "The cattle industry is extremely important for US agriculture with more than 94 million cattle in the United States valued at $49 billion," said US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a USDA press release. "Understanding the cattle genome and having the sequence will allow researchers to understand the genetic basis for disease in domestic cattle and could result in healthier production of meat and milk while reducing producers' dependence on antibiotics."
"The domestic cattle genome sequence opens another window into our own genome," said Acting NIH Director Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D. "By comparing the human genome to the genomes of many different species, such as the domestic cattle, we can gain a clearer view of how the human genome works in health and in disease."
Fine. But what concerns me is a question that I find has been very conveniently ducked by the media, and of course by the scientists/institutes involved in the sequencing of the cow genome project. The bigger question, and politically hot, is who will own the cow genome? Who will eventually end up drawing a patent control over the cows of the world? Who will for that matter claim ownership over the holy cow?
India has some 200 million cows and 90 million buffaloes (Times of India, Aug 2004). India has 30 well established breeds of cows.
I am aware that when the first draft of the bovine genome sequence was drawn in 2004, the Bovine Genome Sequencing Project had made it freely available for use by biomedical and agricultural researchers around the globe, but after the final draft has been prepared it may not be so. We may go on worshipping the holy cow, no one will stop us from doing that, but the real control over the holy cow will probably rest with NIH or USDA.
Should we be worried?
Yes, if the past experience is any indication. Let us understand what happened in case of rice. There was an international consortium of scientists involved in studying the rice chromosomes. But when Monsanto developed the first rice genetic map, it said it will make it freely available for researchers. This did not happen in practical terms. Eventually, the Swiss MNC Syngenta which was able to map more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome, made it abundantly clear that it will seek propreitary control. In fact, it has filed for bulk patents on rice genes.
Take a look at my article: Rice is now Oryza syngenta
Will cow also go the rice way? Will we be soon celebrating an International Year of the Cow, to essentially give a toast to the USDA for gaining monopoly control over the bovine population of the world, including the holy cows of India?
Well, while you ponder over these question, let me point you to a news report of the mapping of cow genome. It will provide you some more useful details.
Cattle Genome Sequencing Milestone Promises Health Benefits, Researcher Says