Background: Sheep carcasses with yellow fat are sporadically observed at Norwegian slaughter houses. This phenomenon is known to be inherited as a recessive trait, and is caused by accumulation of carotenoids in adipose tissue. Two enzymes are known to be important in carotenoid degradation in mammals, and are therefore potential candidate genes for this trait. These are beta-carotene 15,15'-monooxygenase 1 (BCMO1) and the beta-carotene oxygenase 2 (BCO2).
Results: In the present study the coding region of the BCMO1 and the BCO2 gene were sequenced in yellow fat individuals and compared to the corresponding sequences from control animals with white fat. In the yellow fat individuals a nonsense mutation was found in BCO2 nucleotide position 196 (c.196C>T), introducing a stop codon in amino acid position 66. The full length protein consists of 575 amino acids. In spite of a very low frequency of this mutation in the Norwegian AI-ram population, 16 out of 18 yellow fat lambs were found to be homozygous for this mutation.
Conclusion: In the present study a nonsense mutation (c.196C>T) in the beta-carotene oxygenase 2 (BCO2) gene is found to strongly associate with the yellow fat phenotype in sheep. The existence of individuals lacking this mutation, but still demonstrating yellow fat, suggests that additional mutations may cause a similar phenotype in this population. The results demonstrate a quantitatively important role for BCO2 in carotenoid degradation, which might indicate a broad enzyme specificity for carotenoids. Animals homozygous for the mutation are not reported to suffer from any negative health or development traits, pointing towards a minor role of BCO2 in vitamin A formation. Genotyping AI rams for c.196C>T can now be actively used in selection against the yellow fat trait.