‘Scientists have released a first draft of the bovine genome - a run through of the genetic code that describes a cow. A fuller version will follow in 2005 but already researchers can use the data to compare bovine genes with those from humans and other animals. This is likely to aid our understanding of human genetics and disease, as well as improving the health and well being of cattle themselves. Scientists believe the work will also lead to better beef and dairy products. The bovine genome is similar in size to the genomes of humans and other mammals, containing approximately three billion DNA base-pairs. Like the other mammals already sequenced, or in the process of being sequenced, it is expected to have about 30,000 genes. So far, the international team has, broadly speaking, read through the cow's life code 3.3 times. By early next year, the scientists will have been through it six times. This should ensure there are no gaps in the sequence, and any mistakes have been corrected. All the information from the $53m project is being deposited into free public databases for use by biomedical and agricultural researchers around the globe. They can use web tools such as the Ensembl Genome Browser at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, to mine the data.’ BBC, 2004

Gene for placidity

What does the gene for placidity look like - a sludgy,

fudgy brown; malleable, squashy. Merging with calm

blue genes - the pinks of comfort - heart-aching, grey

colour of acceptance; purple endurance. What symbol

will stand for the spectacular slow absorption of yellow

sunlight turning only green grass - regurgitated through

four stomachs - this fantastic common alchemy of cud,

becoming luscious white milk - living supplies of meat. 

Highland Cattle on the Shore Today

For Linda and John Angus McKinnon, Highland cattle and sheep farmers – and the finest neighbours you could wish to have

These Highland Cattle have been forever on this shore;

looking just like souvenirs - perfectly Highland cattle -

Zeppelin-barrel-bodied, ginger hippy-haired;

autumn bracken-colour, rustily combed only

by salt wind. Soft, fat, mushy fingertips of West Coast rain -

turning our hair to sparkly thistle-fluff, mistily ringlets them.

Hair, hide - whitest Scottish bone - John Angus McKinnon’s

beasts are made from wild purple-heathered hills illuminated

by gorse torches, water falling straight to the burn

from heaven, via nothing; their meat is moleculed

from seaweed - lush grass unprinted by the dark hand

of man. Silver eels of light survive on white and black

sands, their hooves among starfish still made of stars

in earthly galaxies - thunderously heavy on foot, old

as Norse gods, they watched the local Vikings land

with this same bemusement, mild interest - patience.

When night falls, thumbed russet smudges listening

to the preserved music of this place - low red notes

sounding, motionless, sewn into the landscape; huge

embroidered stars skewered, Christmassy with cold,

adorning artistic horns - sea milky, struggling warm

under summer’s drugging blue light, washing pagan

hooves, until Moon rewards her rapt audience of night,

the benign Minotaur in brown eyes, infecting genus of

noble Greek statuehood; their milk-blue myth enshrined

in Time’s infallible memory, slowly recognised. Because

of them - first tough blood, brewed of mountains and snow,

standing here, made totally of here, forever, since the start -

the whole world turns advantageously slower, pivoting

on a rusty axis; Earth spinning less frantically in space.

Sea creatures, who lumbered agonisingly from unsullied water,

where they are drawn still in a passion of patience - unworded

worship of physical mystery - enormous red nuns - thunderous

monks; disciples of the word of landscape, belonging, alchemy

of wild materials, natural transmutation of stardust, genetically

disguised. Lowing, their coarse song is the song of rocks; stoic

tongue of water eroding stone - a hymn of endurance amid sleet,

sounding to the last prickle of dawn stars, still listening and cold.

‘In livestock, including cattle, pigs and chickens, genomics will accelerate the use of information on gene function for breeding purposes. For example, some cattle genome studies are characterising the genetic contribution to complex traits such as fertility and carcass composition, helping breeders to identify the cattle most suitable for breeding. Disease resistance is important for animal health and welfare. Genomics will accelerate the understanding of its genetic basis and this will help in breeding resistant animals and in designing new veterinary drugs. For example, genes in chickens that make them more resistant to Salmonella and Marek’s disease have been found recently… Farmers from the earliest times have improved animals and plants for their own purposes. In doing so they have favoured some genetic characteristics over others. Cows, for instance, have been bred, amongst other characteristics, for strength, for meat and leather quality, for milk yield, and for docility. In future, genomics will enable breeders of livestock and plants to make much fuller use of the natural genetic variation available to them, and to introduce specific improvements systematically to meet particular farming or market requirements. Medical Research Council, UK 

Moo Blues

‘Decoding the cow could lead to safer food and better steaks, say proponents.’ BBC News

Gee thanks. Pretty typical, par for the course -

Never a thought for the actual source -

First thing you think of when it comes to cows

Is your own fat stomachs, public rows;

Nothing at all about how we could gain,

Any hint of sympathy with bovine pain -

Imagine what it’s like ending up inside a bun -

(A bit of dignity at least in a steak, Beef Wellington).

Or what it was like, as creatures who like grass -

(We’re so easily pleased, just a field provides dinner en masse) -

To find out later that delicious snack,

Was your cousin mashed up in a handy pack -                ,

Like wondering why your relatives aren’t at Sunday lunch,

Then finding out you’d eaten them with an innocent crunch -

You made us cannibals,

four-legged Hannibals.

And you may never have felt entirely safe with a sausage since -

Some of our inside bits euphemistically known as a pound of mince,

But I’d trust them more than anything you give us in a bowl -

Likely to be our neighbours, the sheep - that nice horse’s foal.

How can we ever again be quite sure -

I daren’t examine my own manure -

Have to keep asking my pals if I’m still acting sane,

As we wait for the farmer before making more methane -

And what about that foot and mouth,

Caused by poor farming practices down south,

But it was us, not bad farmers standing in a queue,

To play starring role in the world’s largest barbeque.

And for us it was just a dose of flu -

A day or two lying low just like you;

You had no need for these terrible fires,

Paintings of hell, Mediaeval pyres -

For us it seemed like a Final Solution,

Holocaust for cattle, moral pollution -

And we heard that the smoke just kept on going,

Rose straight up to Heaven, ash still snowing -

Made angels cough, the Lamb cry,

And finally reached God’s eye -

He saw how you’d treated your patient providers with scorn,

But He still remembered how we’d helped keep Jesus warm;

So he renewed our gift of being content,

As you rush about, end up stressed, spent -

Next time you’re in the country I hope you’ll think on all that -

And with any luck, stand in a large cowpat.

‘An Australian scientist says studying the kangaroo genome might help scientists modify genes in cows so that they produce highly nutritious milk. Kangaroo milk production is of special interest to some scientists because the animals make three distinct types of milk depending on their embryo's age. The research is part of the Kangaroo Genome Project, an Australian effort to sequence the marsupial's entire genome…"In the future and after much debate, this gene could be implanted into a cow to make special types of milk," said Professor Jenny Graves, a scientist from the Australian National University. By understanding the genes which switch milk production on and off in lactating kangaroos, the scientists could eventually incorporate such genes into the genomes of cows. This might enable them to produce certain very specialized types of highly nutritious milk. "I can see potential applications particularly suitable for very tiny embryos because a kangaroo embryo is about as big as a pea when born," said Prof Graves. "It doesn't even have some of its organs yet so the milk is packed full of growth factors. Such milk might be very useful for very young and premature infants." The Kangaroo Genome Project is a collaboration between Australia's lead geneticists to sequence the entire kangaroo genome in five years. "By comparing the human genome with the kangaroo genome we can look back deep into the past because the two species last shared a common ancestor 180 million years ago," said Prof Graves. "So any conserved genes must have particular importance whilst any insignificant genes have changed. Mice only diverged 80 million years ago and are too closely related." The kangaroo genome has also provided insight into the plight of the Y chromosome, which determines maleness. The chromosome has been mysteriously shrinking over a long period of time. Current research predicts that there is unlikely to be a Y chromosome in nine million years. The researchers believe that the kangaroo's Y chromosome is worth looking at because, as in humans, it is particularly short. "We have looked at which genes on the Y chromosome of the kangaroo also feature on the Y chromosome of the human male," Prof Graves explained. "This has led us to show that there is only a little teeny bit of the original Y chromosome left and this feeds into our vision of the Y chromosome as a very degenerate chromosome, losing genes all the time." Research into the kangaroo embryo may also have implications for in vitro fertilization. Uniquely, the kangaroo embryo has the ability to stop and restart its development, almost entering a state of dormancy. "We'd love to know what turns these signals in the embryo off and on from the point of view of manipulating embryos during in vitro fertilization and for contraception," said Prof Graves.’ BBC, 2004

Well, I’m hopping mad - quite difficult when you have four legs, though it seems that soon I may be lifting my strangely truncated front legs off the ground.” Mabel ‘Skippy’ MacDonald, Australian GM Cow


The animals went in two by two, hurrah, hurrah!

The animals went in two by two, hurrah, hurrah!

The animals went in two by two -

came out again as a cowgaroo -

or should that be a kangamoo…

and they all came out of the ark

genetically mo-di-fied.


For 180 million years, children have preserved

the bouncing gene – in joy, Spring, excitement.

Then you forget - gene sequences flicker, go out,

like extinguished candle stubs amid the Genome –

except odd flarings of elation in the soles of the feet;

like flashings of wing sequences, star-jumping home.

What might embryonic milk infiltrate to suckling infants,

what notion of life conserved - in genes still malleable -

children drawn to the burning desert, scrub, gold heat,

laying toys at their stomach with small hands poised -

how subtle the recipes that also made the stars and grass;

what life might come by storming her workshops, laying

hold of her instruments, living experiments, codes adapted

over four billion years; what hybrid results unknown, arise -

in jumping that never stops; muscle in the haunch launching

bound after bound as old sequences relight like daisy chains.

‘GeneWatch UK condemns production of cloned GM cattle with altered milk composition. Today, scientists in New Zealand published their results on the cloning and genetic modification of cattle to alter the protein composition of milk. The intention is to improve the processing and nutritional qualities of milk.GeneWatch UK condemned these studies as inhumane and unnecessary. The experiments involved introducing extra cattle genes and an antibiotic marker gene into cells being grown in the laboratory. These cells were then cloned - nuclei from the GM cells were transferred into eggs from which the nuclei had been removed and then the surviving embryos were transferred into recipient cows. Only 9% of the GM cloned embryos transferred into cows survived to birth and weaning. 50% of the calves from GM cloned embryos died between birth and weaning – only 11 calves survived. Milk production was artificially induced in the calves at 7-9 months of age. Levels of certain milk casein proteins were increased. Potentially large economic benefits for the dairy industry were claimed. "As in all other cloning and GM experiments, half of the calves that were born died. It is possible that other harmful effects on their health will be seen as they age. This research is driven by a desire to industrialise animals in a completely unjustfiable way," said Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch UK’s Director. "Making milk processing easier for cheese or other products to increase profits cannot legitimise suffering on this scale”.’ Genewatch UK, 2003

‘Milk and meat from cloned cattle are almost identical in composition to the milk and meat from conventionally bred cattle, according to the first comprehensive assessment of the nutritional value of food from clones. The new findings, by researchers in Connecticut and Japan, bolster industry assertions that food products from clones should be allowed on the market. But other experts criticized the report as incomplete and said that, in any case, social and economic factors argue against the sale of clonal food…Cloning technology allows scientists to create genetic replicas of adult animals. Although the process remains expensive and inefficient, some producers see a future in the approach because it could allow farmers to mass produce their best milk cows and their finest beef cattle without diluting those stocks with a mate's lesser genes…Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America…called the study "limited in scope" because of the small number of animals involved and because it did not address such issues as whether the clones were more susceptible to infection or other microbial problems, as some critics suspect...The Humane Society of the United States has asked for a ban on milk and meat from clones, noting that many clones die mysteriously during gestation or soon after birth. Others have wondered aloud why it is necessary to clone cows that produce huge amounts of milk when surpluses, rather than shortages, are the main problem facing the U.S. dairy industry today.’ Washington Post, 2005

‘In the USA and Japan, interest continues in the production of cloned pigs and cattle to improve agricultural productivity. Researchers in the USA and Japan studied the composition of meat and milk taken from cloned animals and showed there was no difference between clones and non-clones in milk composition. Differences in some meat characteristics (amount of fat and fatty acids) were attributed to their genetic inheritance as they were cloned from a bull with such (desirable) characteristics. The US Food and Drugs Administration is expected to publish guidance soon.’ Genewatch, 2006

It’s time to allow the new products on the market. These are the best and healthiest and highest-producing animals…the science is clear that clonal meat and milk are equivalent to conventional foods. In terms of animal welfare, clones are basically the rock stars at the farm… and are receiving the best veterinary care that an animal can have." Barbara Glenn, Director, Animal Biotechnology, Biotechnology Industry Organization, 2005

An animal beyond milk production

The cow is alive - animal beyond milk

production; however cultured, adapted

over centuries her pendulous udders,

indiscreet teats – so laden, stumbling

as a bumble bee, she comes in for milking,

to unburden her unnatural superabundance,

encumbered with surplus destined for drains;

swinging so creamily, her anger is cancelled

by modified genes - such pointless excess,

luxurious abuse of her generous processes,

her rapturous gushing, frothing at the mouth

of artificial fingers. She blinks and smiles -

mooing her low, poignant cow language -

half moan, plea, lament; half inarticulate

poem of the patient way of being a cow -

with authorial script amendments by men;

sounding back sadly to the first emerald fields,

rising some autumn nights to strangled outrage.

Genetic Sisterhood of Milk

The genetic sisterhood came home to me

when I made milk from my own body -

Jersey, then pearls dropping slowly, thick

with everything required - Nature’s own

recipe worked up over four billion years

for this one babe in arms that were more

like wings awhile in this state of grace -

child from my body, sustained on blood

turning white to milk; conversion of sun,

energy, all plants and meat, to this liquid.

This was the stuff - ambrosia, human nectar,

sugar, food, energy; comfort, warmth - dozy

chemicals stoning you to the chair; white

oil of union as blood came from the sea -

milk from the water of my life; alchemised

fluid, speaking purity with its own colour -

as Nature wears her warnings in the black

and yellow body of the wasp, orange frog;

as the shining white word of a child is written

on unmapped forehead - meaning Sacrosanct.





Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Zoo
        Puffer Fish
        Also, Zebrafish
        Tyrannosaurus Rex
    Gene Garden
    Earth Poems

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