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Two calves and a cow. Link to photo information
DNA-based technology complements traditional methods for identifying cattle, like the ear tags on these USMARC cross-bred calves, and provides a means for identifying the sire in pastures where multiple bulls are used for breeding. Click the image for more information about it.

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DNA Fingerprinting Promotes Health and Safety

By Laura McGinnis
January 30, 2007

Identifying individual animals is essential to controlling diseases and monitoring international imports and exports.

To find out who's who in a herd, scientists and cattle industry professionals rely on DNA—especially when traditional animal identification has been lost or damaged. Highly specialized genetic markers, developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Neb., are helping to improve animal identification and parentage testing.

The most common type of genetic marker present in U.S. beef and dairy cattle is the "single nucleotide polymorphism" or SNP. The scientists have already identified 122 specialized parentage SNPs and annotated more than 1,600 neighboring SNPs. This knowledge has increased the accuracy of parentage and identification tests.

Using genetic markers, scientists can generate molecular fingerprints to match multiple samples from one animal. DNA-based technology is an effective complement to physical markers—such as brands, tattoos, tags and implants—and can clearly identify animals in situations in which physical markers cannot. DNA can be obtained and analyzed from cattle at any stage of life, as well as from fresh, frozen or cooked products. It's stable and completely unique to each animal.

Since 2003, USMARC researchers have identified over 7,000 bovine SNPs and placed them in the public domain where they can be accessed by researchers around the world.

Over the last decade, technological advances have made SNP identification easier and cheaper. Today the testing procedure typically costs about 2 to 20 cents per SNP, but it could eventually decrease to less than 1 cent. Lower costs could enhance animal health and food safety by promoting widespread use of SNP genotyping in cattle.

Read more about this research in the January 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.