Scientific Research Project Title

Admixture between wild and domestic bovines: implications for genetic improvement and conservation

Research Institution

University of Copenhagen

Section for Computational and RNA Biology, Department of Biology

RESEARCH FIELD

My research areas are genetics, evolution and biodiversity of large mammals

CONTACT INFO

Phone: +45 29299227
E-mail: rheller@bio.ku.dk

Research leader

Rasmus Heller

Assistant Professor, Ph.d., born 1980

Project title

Assessing how natural gene flow between wild and domestic bovines can aid genetic improvement and conservation

What is your project about?

In South East Asia the wild and domestic bovines have mixed with each other for thousands of years. This project will apply genome data to examine the impact of this on the wild and domestic species. For example, it is believed that Indonesian cattle breeds have become more resistant to tropical diseases because they received genes from wild bovines. We will identify which genes in Indonesian cattle that have been introduced by admixture with the banteng, which is an Asian wild bovine. This will enable us to understand and assess the potential for genetic improvement of cattle by measn of natural and artificial transfer of genes from wild species. Furthermore we will use the genetic data to pinpoint threats to the conservation of the endangered banteng.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

Since my days as a biology undergraduate I have been deeply fascinated by tropical biodiversity, particularly in the context of large mammals. Once I discovered the utility of genetics as a tool to understand the biology of these species, it was a heureka moment for me. For the last fifteen years I have used genetics to study large African mammals and their evolution, history and conservation. The idea of studying Asian bovines emerged as I became aware of the evolutionary uniqueness of this group of species. They can help us understand the dynamics of gene flow between species and the role of genetics in the long process from wild to domesticated species.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

We will need to collect DNA from wild banteng in Indonesia, which will not be trivial. Fortunately, we have started a collaboration with an Indonesian university that will help us accomplish this. Furthermore we will try to determine exactly how the different genes that have spread between wild and domestic bovines have affected the different cattle breeds. This is also not an easy task. To achieve this we have teamed up with strong collaborators in Denmark, Europe, China and the US. We will be able to take advantage of the wealth of studies that have examined the function of different genetic variants on e.g. disease resistance, meat and dairy quality, fertility and many other traits in domestic cattle.  

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

It is my firm hope and expectation that the project will facilitate a change of perspective on the necessity of preserving the genetic diversity existing in wild animals. Through our investigation of the potential for genetic improvement in cattle by enrichment from genes found in related wild bovines, we will highlight a potentially massive economic benefit from biodiversity conservation. Hence, I hope to provide a new incentive to conserve and catalogue the gene pools existing in the wild bovines, and to investigate the applied utility of these gene pools for human societies. In addition, we will also examine the risk of genetic swamping of the wild bovine gene pools from the ubiquitous cattle populations.  

 Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

The grant will enable me start wokring on an extremely interesting model system, which will form the basis of decades of research opportunities. I strongly believe that research into the the wild bovines and their relatives can lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of how evolution works, and how humans have shaped evolution in the species we have domesticated over the millennia. The grant hence provides me with an opportunity to place myself in a very promising and exciting research field for the future.

Background and personal life

I am the father of two children aged 6 and 2 years old. Previously an avid footballer and sportsman, I now mostly enjoy outdoor activities in e.g. Sweden, where our family has a house. I have family abroad and enjoy to travel as much as possible, to experience wild nature and foreign cultures. 

City of current residence
Copenhagen

High school
Nykøbing Falster Katedralskole