Australia's ugliest sheep to 'outspin' synthetics

Wednesday, 31 May 2006

The search is on for Australia's ugliest merino lambs which may hold the key to securing Australia's $2.8 billion wool industry and challenging the dominance of synthetic fibres in world markets.

Scientists from SARDI (South Australian Research and Development Institute) and the University of Adelaide are looking for 'xtreme' sheep with unusual wool that provide the keys to unlocking the genetic library pointing to superior wool quality.

Adelaide University's Professor Phil Hynd says these lambs are usually culled because they may have uneven wool, strange fibres, clumps of wool that fall out, bare patches, no wool, unusual crimp, extra-lustrous wool, or even highly wrinkled skin.

"These lambs, typically viewed as worthless, are in fact highly valuable to the industry, because one of the most efficient ways to identify the genes that impact on certain wool traits is to study animals that have rare or extreme features," said Professor Hynd.

"When something goes really wrong with the genes, it is the most powerful indicator about where to look to identify the genes that can - paradoxically - make things go really right.

"It's as though in a mirage of thousands of genes, we can suddenly see a flag pointing to those that are critical to wool follicle formation and fibre synthesis.

"Ultimately, through the latest DNA-based technology, it's the ugly sheep that will help us make quantum leaps to advance the qualities of Australian merino wool to make it more stretchy, less scratchy, shinier and easier to spin, and to compete better against synthetic fibres."

Dr Hynd said that it was estimated that, among the national merino flock, there will be about 100 'xtreme' lambs born this autumn that will exhibit the naturally occurring random mutations that cause unusual fleeces.

"Currently the wool industry is making small, incremental improvements to wool quality - about 1% a year. The development of studying unusual sheep could lead to dramatic improvements in genetic gain and secure a healthy future for the Australian wool industry."

Scientists are calling on producers with this season's 'xtreme' sheep who would like to offer them as part of the joint Australian Wool Innovation Limited and Meat and Livestock Australia initiative - the Sheep Genomics Program.

Collection of wool samples or transportation of sheep can be arranged by contacting Darryl Smith, SARDI Livestock Systems, on (08) 8303 7635 or 0401122176.

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Grace Taylor
SARDI Marketing and Communications
Business: (08) 8313 9433