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DNA shows sheep split from goats four million years ago

Goat and sheep Image copyright Kay Aitchison
Image caption The Texel breed of sheep was used to help crack the genetic difference from goats

Scientists have cracked the genetic code of sheep to reveal how they became a distinct species from goats about four million years ago.

The study is the first to show how sheep are different from other animals.

The findings could aid the development of DNA testing to help farmers improve their stocks.

Researchers at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute - where Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 - joined a global team to "decode" sheep for the first time.

The study compared sheep genetics with those of other animals - including humans, cattle, goats and pigs.

The results identified how sheep develop their fleece and why their digestive system is so well-suited to a diet of low-quality grass and other plants.

Image caption Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 at the Roslin Institute

Prof Alan Archibald, of the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, believes the findings could also provide a vital insight into diseases which affect the animals.

He said: "Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated for farming and are still an important part of the global agricultural economy.

"Understanding more about their genetic make-up will help us to breed healthier and more productive flocks."

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