A international project testing the eating quality of sheep meat using DNA measurements will enter its final stage next year, with the tool developed set to be tested on commercial flocks in New Zealand.
In September last year, a sheep genotyping tool known as a SNP (snip) chip was created by an international team of scientists as part of the FarmIQ genetics project.
John McEwan, one of the project's leaders and AgResearch principal scientist, says the chip measures hundred of thousands of DNA variances and allows a sheep's performance to be predicted by testing its DNA, rather than extensive progeny testing being needed.
"We take an ear punch out of the sheep - just a very small piece of tissue about three millimetres in diameter - and we extract the DNA out of that from the sheep. Then we place that DNA on this slide or chip and develop it with a set of chemicals and the DNA variance appears as different colours."
Mr McEwan says there has not been any real selection for meat quality in New Zealand sheep before and that is the target of this project.
Previous stages include the development of the SNP chips, genetic traits being investigated and genotyping individual sheep. The next step will be testing the tool in commercial flocks to make sure it is accurate, practical and cost-effective.
Mr McEwan says breeders can then use the information to generate rams to sell.
"Previously, you had to kill the animal to measure the eating quality and that's a bit difficult if you want to use the animal subsequently as a ram, so the other alternative is to use the ram and produce a bunch of progeny, measure them and then pick the best rams to use.
"The trouble with that is it's expensive and slow, and so it hasn't been done traditionally. This technology means that you don't have to progeny test the animals and can use the animals a year earlier."
Mr McEwan says this will take place early next year.