Whole-genome sequences of 89 Chinese sheep suggest role of RXFP2 in the development of unique horn phenotype as response to semi-feralization.
Background: Animal domestication has been extensively studied, but the process of feralization remains poorly understood. Results: Here, we performed whole-genome sequencing of 99 sheep and identified a primary genetic divergence between 2 heterogeneous populations in the Tibetan Plateau, including 1 semi-feral lineage. Selective sweep and candidate gene analysis revealed local adaptations of these sheep associated with sensory perception, muscle strength, eating habit, mating process, and aggressive behavior. In particular, a horn-related gene, RXFP2, showed signs of rapid evolution specifically in the semi-feral breeds. A unique haplotype and repressed horn-related tissue expression of RXFP2 were correlated with higher horn length, as well as spiral and horizontally extended horn shape. Conclusions: Semi-feralization has an extensive impact on diverse phenotypic traits of sheep. By acquiring features like those of their wild ancestors, semi-feral sheep were able to regain fitness while in frequent contact with wild surroundings and rare human interventions. This study provides a new insight into the evolution of domestic animals when human interventions are no longer dominant.