Sunday, February 21, 2010

Italian Scientists Turn Back Time, Revive Ancient Cattle Breed

By: Eric Sandy

Edited by: Yacong Yuan

Italian scientists are working on breeding a particular extinct species back into reality. The
aurochs” cattle breed, Bos primigenius, was a physically dominant form of bovine that thrived throughout the Middle Ages. It is now the prime target for a new “back-breeding” experiment. The potential consequences are numerous and the social context runs deep in European history.

Back-breeding is a modern technique of geneticists to purposefully attempt to recreate past species, in a way. Because a complete duplicate of the ancient species is out of science’s reach, however, geneticists are using selective breeding to come as close as possible to the original beast. In that sense, what scientists often try to do in similar experiments is recreate an animal’s phenotype (their physical makeup). Now, with modern technologies, the work can concentrate on animals’ genotypes, or their genetic makeup. The goal will be to create a population of aurochs cattle and integrate them into present-day environments.

Put into historical context, the aurochs species first grazed on the grasslands of Europe thousands of years ago. Their existence harkens back to the time of the ancient Romans and their Caesar rulers. Fossils depicting the geographic history of the animals have been found all over the European and Asian continents. The last legitimate record of any aurochs is from Poland in 1627.

Aurochs are depicted in ochre and charcoal in paintings found on the walls of cave galleries, photo from: Animalpicturesarchive

During their time on this planet, the aurochs populations represented a significant challenge to human civilization, particularly its militant hunting tendencies. Killing an aurochs demonstrated bravery and honor. The typical aurochs could reach very large proportions – with some coming to “a little below the elephant in size,” according to Julius Caesar.

The nomenclature of the species is another interesting clue as to its size. The name aurochs (pl: aurochs) comes from German roots and can be translated loosely as “primeval ox.” The extinguished populations demonstrated the strength of modern draft oxen, as well as the agricultural benefits of cows and bulls.

Those boastful characteristics have long been sought after by modern civilizations. In fact, Adolph Hitler and the leaders of his experimental eugenics pseudo-science were intent on bringing back these ideal specimens of brute strength and potential labor. Due to the ties to national socialist ideology, these experiments were highly controversial and polarizing.
The Heck cattle breed was the result when that took place in the early 20th century. That phenomenon of back-breeding extinct animals has remained in the eye of forward- (and backward-) thinking scientists for quite some time.

Heinz and Lutz Heck, from Munich and Berlin respectively, worked their studies and experiments into the Nazi-backed plan of Hermann Goering – namely, the Aryan Nation – a concept built around ideal biological forms. Compounding generations of crossbreeding have led to a formidable species of cattle that is very similar to the aurochs of past ages. Presently, there are around 2,000 Heck cattle roaming the European continent.

Aurox-male (Heck cattle), born 08.03.1994 in Steinberg, Germany, height 1,60 m on shoulder, horn-circumference 44 cm, horn-outside-messure 89 cm, horn-span 103 cm. Photo from: Foto Walter Frisch

The whole notion of breeding presently extinct animals back into existence is a highly controversial issue in modern society. If one considers Darwinist ideas to be in effect, it should be safe to assume that extinct species simply didn’t have the necessary survival skills to sustain themselves. If that’s the case, why would a world that differs significantly from the 1600s desire a giant-sized breed of cattle? Orneriness and potential dangers aside, there’s a simple matter of agricultural logistics.

However, one of the goals of this experimental project is to offer better approaches to more efficient ways of life.

“Today, our focus is sustainability and bigger animals will help with that,” Donato Matassino said. Matassino is the head of the Consortium for Experimental Biotechnology, located in Benevento, a city in southern Italy. The organization is presently overseeing and working on the back-breeding efforts.

The bigger cattle will offer firm competition to modern cows in the form of higher milk and meat production. Inherent in this look to the past is the idea that with modern technologies, the science community can pick and choose which elements of time and life are most suitable for human needs. In this way, Darwinism may become a bit of an obsolete notion.

Those modern technologies are the key. Unlike the misguided attempts of the Heck brothers, Matassino’s team has access to a wider genetic map. In 2009, the general classification of cattle became the first livestock animal to have its entire genome mapped. Now the animals are ripe for experimentation – a controversial notion.

Many of the goals in this branch of science reflect a conscious effort toward preservation of genetic information. As human globalization and climate change compound and affect the planet’s natural habitats, genetic diversity is lost in favor of consolidated traits. Back-breeding can lead to a richer array of animals across the globe. Aurochs bulls can mingle with modernity in the pastoral countryside of Italy.

With drastic increases in the quality of technology, scientists are able to get significantly closer to the genetic reality of the aurochs. Selective breeding will ideally lead scientists to a type of animal that bears a striking resemblance to the aurochs.

Modern cattle also carry a strategic advantage in their DNA. Historically, wild aurochs were known to mate with more conventional cows. That mingling of genetic material has left scientists with the monumental starting point they will need to make this experiment a reality. The strongest links between the past and the present lie in the cattle of Italy, according to geneticist Giorgio Bertorelle of the University of Ferrara.

Concurrently, in a similar set of experiments in Poland, scientists are working on cloning the DNA of skeletal structures from the last known aurochs. That parallel experiment will also help advance the work of European geneticists and, ultimately, farmers worldwide.

All of this raises many larger-than-life issues – namely, the relationship between humans and the world around them. The integrity of endangered species and similarly precarious populations may be placed in a less significant light. History can be undone.
One of the main social implications of these scientific forays is that forums for discussion will open. Answers are not yet readily available, and this is mostly due to the fact that questions are not yet being asked. Most people will be caught off guard by the notion of back-breeding. Environmental policies will have cause to shift, therefore affecting political realms.
In this ongoing effort to reroute biological evolution, humans will have to pay attention and ensure the morality and humanism necessary for powerful abilities like back-breeding.

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