According to historiographical documentation, the Romans first began to select Merino sheep in the Iberian Peninsula during the first century, with the aim of obtaining a breed appreciated for the quality of its wool. This process continued locally during the Middle Ages, when Spanish sheep were protected, and their export to foreign countries was banned. It was during the 16th century when individual Merino sheep were allowed to spread around the world to be used to improve the wool quality of local breeds. However, the wool crisis of the 1960s shifted the selection criteria of the Merino breed towards meat production at the expenses of wool. Consequently, individuals that display the genetic and phenotypic characteristics of those sheep originally bred in the kingdom of Spain in the Middle Ages are extremely difficult to find in commercial herds. In this study, we characterized the genetic basis of 403 individuals from the main historical Spanish Merino genetic lines (Granda, Hidalgo, Lopez-Montenegro, Maeso, Donoso and Egea), which were bred in isolation over the last 200 years, using a genomic approach based on genotyping data from the Axiom™ Ovine 50K SNP Genotyping Array. Our analysis included measuring population structure, genomic differentiation indexes, runs of homozygosity (ROH) patterns, and an analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA). The results showed large genetic differences between the historical lines, even though they belong to the same breed. In addition, ROH analysis showed differences due to increased inbreeding among the ancient generations compared with the modern Merino lines, confirming the breed's ancestral and closed origin. However, our results also showed a high variability and richness within the Spanish historical Merino lines from a genetic viewpoint. This fact, together with their great ability to produce high-quality wool, suggests that ancestral Merino lines from Spain should be considered a valuable genetic population to be maintained as a resource for the improvement of wool-producing sheep breeds all around the world.
Keywords: SNPs; genetic lines; genomic characterization; merino; sheep.