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News Article

Cattle and Man Evolved Together

A study reported in Nature Genetics has examined the geographic coincidence between milk gene diversity in cattle and the prevalence of lactose tolerance in man.

A study reported in Nature Genetics has examined the geographic coincidence between milk gene diversity in cattle and the prevalence of lactose tolerance in man. Milk from domesticated cattle is believed to have been a valuable food source for human populations for around 8,000 years. However, not all human populations have the genetically determined ability to digest milk lactose in adulthood. The survey of cattle milk genes and lactose tolerance in man reveals that a gene-culture coevolution has taken place between cattle and humans.

In the December issue of Nature Genetics, Albano Beja-Pereira and colleagues in seven European countries looked at the six most important milk proteins in 20,000 cows from 70 breeds. High allelic richness and genetic distinctiveness was found the native cattle from North Central Europe (NCE). They concluded that the region of the map where they found the greatest genetic diversity among cows neatly overlapped both the region with the most lactose tolerant people and with the geographical center of the Neolithic cattle herding culture.

The authors suggest that since Neolithic times there has been a gene-culture coevolution between domestic cattle and human culture that was driven by the advantages conferred by the consumption of milk. This advantage led to the maintenance of larger herds of cattle and selection within them for increased milk yield and altered milk protein composition. This coevolution appears to have influenced the frequencies of the important milk protein genes in cattle and the gene encoding lactase in humans. Archaeological evidence from the NCE region suggests that cattle herd were managed for early weaning of calves, giving more milk for human consumption. Outside the NCE region, rearing for meat consumption led to later weaning in order to optimize weight gain in calves.

The authors conclude that cows and people have had a strong mutual influence on the genetic structure of one another’s populations and that farming has had the effect of increasing the diversity of cattle in NCE to such an extent that they are now a precious resource for the future of agriculture. The study represents the first non-disease-related example of genetic coevolution between humans and domestic animals.

The paper describing the research is entitled "Gene-culture coevolution between cattle milk protein genes and human lactase genes" by A. Beja-Pereira, G. Luikart, P.R. England, D.G. Bradley, O.C. Jann, G. Bertorelle, A.T. Chamberlain, T.P. Nunes, S. Metodiev, N. Ferrand and G. Erhardt and is published in Nature Genetics 35(4), pp. 311-313.

Contact: Dr Albano Beja-Pereira, Universite Joseph Fourier, BP 53, 38041, Grenoble, France
Tel: +33 476635433

Article details

  • Date
  • 01 December 2003
  • Subject(s)
  • Awaiting Classification (2)