Indian shepherds benefit from international research

Published 28 November 2008

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A gene discovered in Australian Merinos and traced back to the Indian Garole breed is now being used in India to help raise the incomes of poor shepherds.

The “Booroola fecundity” (or FecB) gene promotes the birth of twin lambs. Over the past 10 years, Indian and Australian scientists have been working with shepherds in the State of Maharashtra in an effort to increase the productivity of their flocks by using a variety of methods – including the introduction of the FecB gene from the Garole breed.

The project, funded since 1998 by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), culminated earlier this month with an international workshop in Maharashtra that confirmed the success of the strategy in that State and supported its extension to other parts of India.

The leader of the Australian research team, Professor Steve Walkden-Brown from the University of New England, said that the Deccani sheep of Maharashtra (in common with the majority of Indian sheep breeds) have a comparatively low reproduction rate, with ewes producing only one lamb every 10 to 12 months. “As the shepherds’ income depends largely on the sale of lambs for meat, they have always placed a high value on those rare ewes that produce twins,” he said.

Seven scientists from UNE – the commissioned Australian research institution for the project – participated over the years, together with several from CSIRO and the University of Melbourne. The leader of the Indian team is Dr Chanda Nimbkar who – during the project – completed a PhD degree in genetics at UNE, graduating in 2005. Dr Nimbkar is now the Director of Animal Husbandry at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute in Maharashtra, founded by her father. The other leading researcher in India is Dr Vidya Gupta of the National Chemical laboratory in Pune, Maharashtra, where this month’s workshop was held.

Professor Walkden-Brown explained that the project had initially examined the possibility of improving productivity by the introduction of the tiny but fecund Garole breed from West Bengal.

“This proved inappropriate in the Maharashtra environment,” he said. “However, the discovery during the project that the fecundity of the Garole was due to the action of a single major gene (the FecB) meant that the gene could be introduced into the local Deccani sheep by repeated back crossing and DNA testing for the gene. This enabled the transfer of the desirable prolificacy trait of the Garole, while limiting transfer of undesirable traits such as its small body size.”

“UNE’s ‘systems analysis’ approach, emphasising the importance of understanding the social, economic and biological aspects of traditional shepherding in Maharashtra – including the needs of the shepherds themselves – guided the project from the start,” he added.

The effects of the gene have been thoroughly evaluated in 26 shepherds’ flocks since 2003. “We found that, in Indian breeds, the FecB gene produced moderate increases in lamb numbers which were welcomed by the shepherds and which increased profits,” Professor Walkden-Brown said. “This differs from the effect of the gene in breeds such as the Australian Merino, in which it causes excessive lamb numbers – an effect that has limited the use of the FecB gene in Australia.

While the workshop in Pune brought the ACIAR-funded project to an end, Professor Walkden-Brown and his colleagues at UNE will maintain a keen interest in the application of its findings. “Determining the underlying reasons for the difference in behaviour of the gene in India and Australia is an obvious research challenge arising from this work,” he said.

The workshop was named the “Helen Newton Turner Memorial International Workshop” in memory of the distinguished Australian geneticist Dr Helen Newton Turner, who was the first to suggest that the FecB gene, found among Merino sheep on the “Booroola” sheep station in NSW, had come from Indian sheep imported into Australia in the late eighteenth century. During the workshop, researchers from countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the UK, China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Israel and Kenya reported their findings on the Booroola gene.

The UNE researchers who presented papers included Professor Walkden-Brown, Professor Julius Van Der Werf and Associate Professor Geoff Hinch from the School of Environmental and Rural Science, and Dr Andrew Swan from the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit. Dr Julian Prior from the School of Environmental and Rural Science also produced a paper for the workshop that was presented on his behalf.

Others from UNE who have been involved in the project over the years include Dr Lewis Kahn and Associate Professor Jim McFarlane.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here was taken during a visit by delegates at the Pune workshop to one of the farms participating in the project. The farm, at Phaltan, is owned by the two Pisar brothers. They and their wives (in yellow) are pictured here with some of their sheep.