Riding on the sheep’s back: research into wool development

Prize winning research by a South Australian doctoral student into the genes controlling wool follicle development in merinos may incidentally assist with reducing the need for mulesing.

University of Adelaide, School of Agriculture Food and Wine PhD student Hayley McGrice has won this year’s SARDI (South Australian Research & Development Institute) Suffrage Science Bursary for her research into the genes and molecular signals which affect wool follicle formation in lambs.

Her research has used novel techniques to investigate which specific genes are turned on and off during key points of the wool follicle formation. McGrice said the intention was not to develop an approach to controlling the risk of fly-strike, but was aimed at identifying the genes which control follicle initiation. However, she agreed it might provide a useful avenue to reducing the need for mulesing.

“This research is not focused on the differences in wool follicle initiation/growth at particular sites on the sheep (i.e. the midside versus the breech); my research is more fundamental in that it is trying to identify the genes controlling follicle initiation in general,” she said.

” It would therefore not directly assist in phasing out mulesing, however, if the industry can understand the signals that control follicle initiation we can potentially manipulate it at particular sites on the sheep.”

Her research could contribute to graziers achieving greater wool productivity from their animals.

“Wool follicles are only initiated once during any mammal’s life, so if we can determine which genes or pathways are responsible, we might be able to manipulate the development of follicles – perhaps producing many more wool follicles – so as to maximise the lifetime wool producing potential of sheep,” she said.

However, she warned that such results would be some years away.

“The aim of this project and others within the sheep genomics program is to identify the genes controlling follicle initiation so that we have the background knowledge required to manipulate this dynamic biological process. Whether these results will be used to generate markers to select for sheep with the potential to grow more wool, or to generate pharmaceuticals to manipulate follicle initiation (i.e. increase follicle initiation and decrease fibre diameter), is not yet known.

“This is very ‘blue sky’ research, the results of which that will hopefully assist the growth of the wool industry over the next decade.”


University of Adelaide PhD student, Hayley McGrice inspects the wool on the back of one of her research subjects. (Photo courtesy of SARDI)

Another possible spin-off of McGrice’s research could be to assist people who suffer from a genetic hair and skin disorder called ectodermal dysplasia. People with this condition are often born with extremely sparse hair and have abnormal or missing teeth and poorly developed sweat glands.

“Because of the similarity of hair and wool follicle initiation across mammals, these findings are relevant to research in human hair conditions,” she said. “Mutations in two of the genes I have measured have been previously established as causative in ectodermal dysplasia.

“My work has shown how these genes are important in the formation of wool follicles and the signalling processes involved, and thus may benefit further research into this hair disorder.”

Her fundamental research into the genes and pathways involved in wool follicle initiation could ultimately lead to the production of pharmaceuticals or food additives with the potential to increase the number of follicles initiated during development to increase the rate of wool growth in sheep, she said.

“Similarly it could lead to benefits for human hair conditions such as ectodermal dysplasia.”

The SARDI bursary will help McGrice attend the 5th International Congress of Hair Research in Vancouver this month to present her findings.

©Sue Cartledge

« Back to writing examples