QTL and association analysis for skin and fibre pigmentation in sheep provides evidence of a major causative mutation and epistatic effects

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The pursuits of white features and white fleeces free of pigmented fibre have been important selection objectives for many sheep breeds. The cause and inheritance of non-white colour patterns in sheep has been studied since the early 19th century. Discovery of genetic causes, especially those which predispose pigmentation in white sheep, may lead to more accurate selection tools for improved apparel wool. This article describes an extended QTL study for 13 skin and fibre pigmentation traits in sheep. A total of 19 highly significant, 10 significant and seven suggestive QTL were identified in a QTL mapping experiment using an Awassi × Merino × Merino backcross sheep population. All QTL on chromosome 2 exceeded a LOD score of greater than 4 (range 4.4–30.1), giving very strong support for a major gene for pigmentation on this chromosome. Evidence of epistatic interactions was found for QTL for four traits on chromosomes 2 and 19. The ovine TYRP1 gene on OAR 2 was sequenced as a strong positional candidate gene. A highly significant association (P < 0.01) of grandparental haplotypes across nine segregating SNP/microsatellite markers including one non-synonymous SNP with pigmentation traits could be shown. Up to 47% of the observed variation in pigmentation was accounted for by models using TYRP1 haplotypes and 83% for models with interactions between two QTL probabilities, offering scope for marker-assisted selection for these traits.

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