Wool Fibre Study

June 2010

A study looking at what genetic variation causes differences in wool characteristics

Dr Jon Hickford, Associate Professor in Animal Breeding & Genetics at Lincoln University, is carrying out research into the genetic basis of variation in wool fibre characteristics. In order to identify which genes are the most important he has created a special flock, and is sampling them for wool and skin genetic material.

Wool is a natural fibre and because of this there is considerable variation in important user characteristics such as colour, fibre diameter, fibre strength, elasticity, etc.

While this natural variation gives wool some of it special character, it is also problematic for those who process and use wool one batch doesnt always process and perform the same way as another batch.

In contrast, synthetic fibres can be produced with a uniform diameter, a specific colour and uniform strength etc. This makes them popular with manufacturers as they do not need to be able accommodate the large amount of variation that occurs with wool, and the customer benefits because they can buy a product year-in year year-out that doesnt vary.

Controlling the variation in wool is by no means easy as shown by the fact that humans have been trying for probably more than 10,000 years, according to Dr Jon Hickford of Lincoln University.

We are getting better at understanding and controlling both the genetic and environmental factors that affect wool traits, but we have a long way to go and this is where our research is headed, he says.

Its part of a much larger FORSTfunded research programme at AgResearch to enhance the value of wool and wool products, and this in itself is ironic because at a time when farmers have chosen to not invest in wool research by way of a commodity levy, the Government is investing on behalf of the taxpayer.

The Lincoln project, supplemented by other research spending, is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the genes that underpin wool traits. This may sound easy, but as Jon points out it involves potentially hundreds of genes.

To date we have focussed on some key genes, and two things are clear. First, the genes we think may be important are all highly variable, and second, that variation seems to be associated with variation in wool traits, says Jon.

While the latter association is interesting and the sort of result we want, the fact that the genes are all highly variable makes it very difficult to breed the perfect sheep, if we knew what that was.

So the first step is to try to find the genes that have a major effect on wool traits. This will be challenging, but knowing that many wool traits are quite heritable suggests that some specific genes are having a major effect. The Lincoln team has recently found a gene that seems to affect staple strength (wool strength).

One of the tools being used in this research the creation of a flock of sheep with a wide range of variation in key wool traits, like fibre diameter, wool bulk and staple strength, says Jon.

We have done this by crossing Merino and Southdown sheep, which gives a large-framed fine wool animal. This is a strange looking cross that has little commercial value, but it is a good genetic and wool resource to do better genetic tests that we hope will provide us with genetic tools to help control variation in wool, he says.