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Italian scientists to "recreate" forerunner to modern cattle

Extinct, giant cattle that once roamed the fields of Europe could graze again according to a team of Italian scientists at the forefront of a project to breed the ancient beast back into existence.

The forerunner to all modern cattle, the hulking Auroch averaged a metric tonne in weight dwarfing even the largest steers known today.

According to Donato Matassino of the Consortium for Experimental Biotechnology in Benevento, the last known specimen died in the forests of Poland in 1627, leaving behind its smaller, gentler descendants.

Mattisino explained the project to revive the Auroch is based on a scientifically controversial technique called ''breeding back''.

Scientists will attempt to recreate the Auroch through a process of selective breeding between cattle with different elements of its genetic makeup.

The experiment was attempted before by a pair of German zookeepers in 1930-40s with the dedicated sponsorship of a Nazi government eager to put its theories about eugenics and racial superiority into practice.

The result are a still rare variety known as Heck cattle, a breed physically similar to the Aurochs, but genetically very different.

According to Mattassino, this is the first attempt to back breed the ancient stock with the use of modern genetics.

''We were able to analyze Auroch DNA from preserved bone material and create a rough map of its genome that should allow us to breed animals nearly identical to Aurochs,'' he said.

''We've already made our first round of crosses between three breeds native to England, Spain and Italy. Now we just have to wait and see how the calves turn out''.

Mattasino called the endeavor a ''long-term project'' explaining that breeding back can take several years before the sought after genes come together in a single generation.

But he said it was worth the wait, as large Auroch cows would produce more milk and yield more meat per acre.

Ornery creatures with long horns and short tempers, Aurochs were phased out by early-modern farmers in favour of their more docile kin.

But Mattisino argued that ''today, our focus is sustainability and bigger animals will be a help with that''.

Launched in 2008, the Italian project is one of two in Europe to resuscitate the storied breed.

by S. C.
14 january 2010, World News > Italy