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Scientists Decode DNA Of Domestic Pig

What can knowing the sequence of all the DNA in pigs tell us about human diseases? Plenty, says Lawrence Schook. He heads an international consortium to sequence the pig genome that is announcing its results Monday at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, England.

"The pig, I think, is going to allow us to have some really great opportunities to looking at physiology and behavior and disease relationships that afflict humans much more than any other species that has been sequenced to date," Schook says.

That's because pigs share many important physiological traits with humans, and can be more easily studied than non-human primates such as apes or monkeys.

The sequencing project cost about $24 million, approximately half of which was contributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

TJ Tabasco

The sequence comes from a single pig, formally known as UIUC 2-14, although she's also called TJ Tabasco. She's a Duroc pig, one of five major breeds used in pork production around the world.

Schook says having the sequence of a domesticated pig will help scientists learn how domesticated pigs diverged from their wild cousins.

"We can begin to look at regions of the genome that contribute to behavior and disease resistance by looking at the native wild animals, in contrast to the highly selected modern breeds that we see today," he says.

There haven't been any major surprises revealed by the pig genome so far, but Schook says there was one finding that was unexpected:

"The structure of the genome, as well as the sequence of the genome and the similarities with humans, was much higher than we had anticipated," he says.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we have more swine news this morning. An international team of scientists is announcing today that it has completed a draft sequence of the pig genome. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, this is big news for pigs and for humans too.

JOE PALCA: The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped pay for the new sequencing project, in part because scientists hope that a better understanding of the pig genome could lead to better bacon some day. But that's hardly the only reason. Lawrence Schook led the sequencing project. Schook is a geneticist at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He says sequencing the pig genome will teach scientists about the differences between domestic pigs and their wild cousins.

Dr. LAWRENCE SCHOOK (Geneticist, University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana): We can begin to look at regions of the genome that contribute to behavior and disease resistance by looking at the native wild animals in contrast to the highly selected modern breeds that we see today.

PALCA: The differences between the wild boar and the even-tempered barnyard pig may reveal some important information about how genes control behavior. Schook says the pig is also important for human medicine, since many pig parts function more like human parts than any other animal besides primates.

Dr. SCHOOK: The pig, I think, is going to allow us to have some really great opportunity to look at physiology and behavior and disease relationships that afflict humans much more than any other species that have been sequenced to date.

PALCA: The Consortium of European and American scientists aren't the only ones working on the pig genome. Schook says there's a competing group made up of Danish and Chinese scientists. But, Schook says, it's a friendly competition.

Dr. SCHOOK: We gave them DNA from the animal we're sequencing.

PALCA: Was there a single animal? I mean, do we know who this is?

Dr. SCHOOK: Single animal, it's a single animal and�

PALCA: Or do you have to protect the privacy?

Dr. SCHOOK: We actually don't. We actually celebrate her. Her name's T.J. Tabasco, and she is a red-haired pig here from central Illinois.

PALCA: Still with us?

Dr. SCHOOK: She is actually. We've cloned her.

(Soundbite of a pig squealing)

PALCA: That's one of the clones. And where did the name T.J. Tabasco come from?

Dr. SCHOOK: When we first cloned her, we had 11 piglets. And we had a contest to name them and they were all named after Disney characters - Tinkerbell and Jasmine - and you take all the letters together and you come up with T.J. Tabasco.

PALCA: Now, you may recall that in the Aldus Huxley novel, "Chrome Yellow," Rollie(ph), the farmhand, makes an observation about the pigs enjoying their time in the mud at the farm.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Look at them, sir, he said with a motion of his hand towards the wallowing swine, rightly is they called pigs.

PALCA: But Larry Schook says the pig genome reveals that pigs and humans may not be as different as all that.

Dr. SCHOOK: The structure of the genome, as well as the sequence of the genome and the similarities with humans, I think, is much higher than we had anticipated.

PALCA: By the way, you may not be aware that the pig is only the second artiodactyl to have its genome sequenced - the cow came first. And in case you're not into animal taxonomy or don't have a dictionary nearby, an artiodactyl is an even-toed ungulate - ungulate you'll have to look up for yourself.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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