Three University of Illinois researchers have received $3 million dollars to use during a five-year period to create comprehensive genome maps of the pig and cow. "It took a billion dollars to sequence the human genome. National Institutes of Health had this huge investment in technology, people and equipment and they finished early," says Lawrence Schook, animal science geneticist, "so they decided to use the remainding resources to sequence the genomes of other species."  

Schook, along with Jonathan Beever and Harris Lewin, both animal science geneticists at the University of Illinois in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences were selected to develop detailed maps of the cow and the pig. For about 10 years, the three researchers have been studying genes with economic impact such as disease resistance, lactation and growth. Schook and Beever study cows and Lewin studies pigs.

"Having the gene maps and sequences of other species, particularly other mammals, will help us better understand the human genome," says Schook.

"There are hidden secrets in the coding," adds Lewin. "Only a small part of the genes encode protein. About 5 percent of gene coding of cows, pigs and humans are very similar. Another 5 percent is similar but non-coding. The other 90 percent is what we call 'DNA glue.' It either doesn't do anything or codes unknown functions."

Geneticists think that minor differences in the first two categories is what makes a cow a cow and a pig a pig. By looking at gene sequences for different species side-by-side, comparing and contrasting, scientists can better understand how cows, pigs and humans evolved.

"The honey bee genome, for example, was relatively simple to map because of its smaller size," says Lewin, "and although very different from humans, it is hard-wired genetically for certain behaviors so we can learn something about human social behavior and aggression from the honey bee." University of Illinois entomologist Gene Robinson is performing that work.