The Uruz Project is an international scientific project with the goal of breeding back the extinct aurochs (Bos p. primigenius). Uruz is the old Germanic word for aurochs. The Uruz Project was initiated in 2013 by the True Nature Foundation and presented at TEDxDeExtinction, a day-long conference organised by the Long Now Foundation with the support of TED and in partnership with National Geographic Society, to showcase the prospects of bringing extinct species back to life.
Technically, Bos primigenius is not extinct, only its subspecies B. p. primigenius is. Most, and probably all, of the relevant DNA needed to breed back the aurochs can be found in B. p. taurus. There also has been introgression of European aurochs into domestic cattle in ancient times. The Uruz Project’s goal is to collect all relevant data and reunite scattered aurochs DNA in one animal.
The project differs from other, historical and more recent, aurochs breeding projects in that it combines genomics and classic Mendelian rules of inheritance to develop the most effective breeding strategy. Primitive founder cattle breeds are carefully selected and the number of cattle breeds used is kept to a minimum.
Ecological restoration projects cannot be complete without bringing back those key elements that help shape and reshape wild landscapes. The European aurochs (Bos p. primigenius) was a large and long-horned wild bovine herbivore that existed from the most western tip of Europe until Siberia in present day Russia. Aurochs have played a major role in human history. They are often depicted in rock-art, including the famous, well-conserved cave paintings made by Cro-Magnon people in the Lascaux Caves, estimated to be 17,300 years old. Aurochs and other large animals portrayed in Paleolithic cave art were often hunted for food. Hunting and habitat loss caused by humans, including agricultural land conversion, caused the aurochs to go extinct in 1627, when the last individual, a female, died in Poland’s Jaktorów Forest.
The aurochs is one of the keystone species that is missing in Europe. Their grazing and browsing patterns, trampling of the soil and faeces had a profound impact on the vegetation and landscapes it inhabited. Grazing results in a greater variety of plant species, structures and ecological niches in a landscape that benefit both biodiversity and production. Megaherbivores like the aurochs also controlled vegetation development. The Uruz Project ultimate goal is to breed back the aurochs to re-create, maintain and enhance the biodiversity and characteristics of natural ecosystems in Europe.
The Uruz Project breeds back the aurochs from a limited number of carefully selected, existing primitive cattle breeds with known aurochs characteristics. The project uses Sayaguesa cattle, Maremmana primitiva or Hungarian grey cattle, Chianina and Watusi. The DNA of the Aurochs has been completely reconstructed and serves as the baseline for the reconstruction of the Aurochs.
The project is using aurochs DNA data to evaluate breeding results and genome editing, a new field of science, to eliminate wrong genes so that characteristics that are not aurochs-specific will not inherit and return in later generations.
In order to obtain desired features of two breeds the project conducts crossbreeding with two cattle breeds in one crossbred combination. The F1 will be (virtually) homogeneous. Crossbreeding those F1's with one another will theoretically result in all phenotypes within the phenotypic bell curve of a breed A or breed B and the morphology of both breeds. Two breeding lines has been set up with two breeds per breeding line, i.e. one breeding line of Chianina × Watusi and the other breeding line Sayaguesa × Maremmana. Once the Chianina × Watusi and Sayaguesa × Maremmana offspring of the (true) F2 are available in both sexes, the project will continue with a (true) F3 while continuing to raise additional (true) F2 from the F1 generation over the course of their reproductive lifetime. By adhering to this breeding strategy more stability will be created than with random crossing based on phenotype.
Two Aurochs-like breeds have been selected that will be bred true to breed and where no back breeding will take place but only strong selection. These two are the Barrosã and Maronesa cattle breeds from Northern Portugal.
For assessment and definition of Aurochs appearance and behaviour, the Uruz Project integrates knowledge and expertise from multiple scientific disciplines, including archaeozoology, archaeology, cattle breeding, ecology, zoological forensic research, ancient genetics and molecular biology. Physical selection criteria have been established for both bulls and cows. This includes both phenotype, including shoulder height, overall build, coloration, head, horns and coat, and socioecological behaviour and use of terrain and vegetation.
Cross Breeding Progress and Results
The first breeding herd has been established in Germany and in the Netherlands preparations are underway to start multiple herds. Other breeding herds will be set up in 2014 in Portugal, Spain, Czech Republic and Romania.
The Uruz Project established long term partnerships with the Long Now Foundation, Kloster Lorsch, Förderkreis Große Pflanzenfresser im Kreis Bergstraße e.V, European Wildlife, SAVE Foundation, as well as the Animal Genomics Laboratory of Dublin University, the Ancient DNA Laboratory at Potsdam University and genomics laboratories in the United States.
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