Identifying The Perfect Cow
By Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) – Genetic sequencing—the science of mapping the location and function of genes found in a strand of DNA—has been hailed for its potential to fight disease and save lives. Yet many consumers may get their first taste of genomic research when it shows up on their dinner table—in the form of a tender steak.

Two years ago, Maryland-based Celera Genomics decided to sell off its livestock research to focus on human gene sequencing. The research, which included a complete map of the cattle genome, was acquired by MetaMorphix, another Maryland company, for an estimated $16 million. MetaMorphix, in turn, licensed the orphaned intellectual property to agribusiness giant Cargill for $10 million.

Since then Cargill has been testing 4,000 head of beef cattle against the genetic markers found in the genome to figure out which genetic variations produce the best meat. The result is a new blood test, introduced last summer, that allows Cargill to identify the cattle with the tastiest genes. Those with superior genetic potential receive expensive feed; lower-grade bovines are placed on—and eventually become—a more economical diet.

This will allow Cargill to manage its herd of 600,000 cattle more efficiently, resulting in big cost savings, while savvy diners will notice more consistency in the quality of the meat they buy. The first beef produced with Cargill's genomic technique will hit supermarket shelves later this year.

Is ham more your taste? You're in luck: In June, MetaMorphix signed a deal with Monsanto, which plans to do for pork what Cargill has done for beef. — MICHAEL V. COPELAND