Gene Expression

Aurochs resurrection project

Breeding Ancient Cattle Back from Extinction:

The only place to see an aurochs in nature these days? A cave painting. The enormous wild cattle that once roamed the European plains have been extinct since 1627, when the last survivor died in a Polish nature reserve. But this could soon change thanks to the work of European preservationists who are hoping they can make the great beast walk again. If they succeed — through a combination of modern genetic expertise and old-fashioned breeding — it would be the first time an animal has been brought back from extinction and released into the wild.

The current effort isn’t the first attempt to resurrect the ancient cattle. The aurochs played an important role in early German culture, and in the early 20th century the Nazi government funded an attempt to breed them back as part of its propaganda effort. The result, known as Heck cattle, may to some extent resemble the ancient aurochs, says Kerkdijk, but they’re genetically quite different. “We want a breed that resembles the aurochs, not only in phenotype, but in genotype,” he says. Heck cattle, for example, are more aggressive than aurochs because they were bred, in part, using Spanish fighting bulls. “They will attack without a prior threat display,” says Kerkdijk. “When I’m in Africa, herbivores won’t attack me. They give some type of warning: Back off, one step further or you’re dead meat.”

Sounds like they do want the phenotype, but the behavioral phenotype. There are of course auroch genetic material preserved in museums because they went extinct so recently, so they’ll use those sequences and to hunt for the variants in modern cattle strains. Once the preliminary analysis of what they want is done, it’ll be old-fashioned animal breeding it seems….


  1. #1 Phillip IV
    February 12, 2010

    Once the preliminary analysis of what they want is done, it’ll be old-fashioned animal breeding it seems….

    Then Mr. Kerkdijk is obviously a very, very patient man or has a very, very large budget at his disposal. And that’s assuming that all the required alleles are still around somewhere, even. I wonder whether a mixed breeding/gene manipulation effort wouldn’t be more effective.

  2. #2 IanW
    February 12, 2010

    The name is actually “aurochs” – it’s not a plural.

  3. #3 agnostic
    February 12, 2010

    I wonder what their meat and butter / cheese taste like. That’d be the best way to decide which species to resurrect — then you could rely on a profit motive from ranchers to maintain a huge population of them, rather than on conservation groups, which only have the power of private charities or state agencies.

  4. #4 John Emerson
    February 13, 2010

    “Aurochs” means Ur-ox (original ox).

    It’s very unlikely that the aurochs will be economically viable except for zoos and for an expensive novelty meat. Domestic beef cattle have been intensively bread for maximal meat production, tractability, efficient utilization of feed, quick growth, sturdiness, and so on. Buffalo meat can’t really compete because buffalos haven’t been so bred, and the meat doesn’t have a distinctive flavor to justify the higher cost. (I’m pretty sure that’s why the antelope breeding mentioned by Diamond failed too.)

    Even before genetic recombination came along, domestic animals and agricultural plants were already bred almost to unrecognizability. For example, “amber waves of grain” in the song. Wheat now is raised to be ankle high with enormous ears of grain. Oldtime farmers spent a lot of energy and time raising straw, which is more or less worthless. (Corn stalks, by contrast, are economical because they’re good cattle feed. But the domestic corn plant is a parasite that can’t seed itself, and a hybrid that won’t breed true).

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