DNA research on a herd of cows in south west Scotland could play a part in helping humans live longer and healthier, say scientists.

The study of their DNA by Scotland’s Rural College was carried out at the Crichton Royal Farm in Dumfries.

Professor Mike Coffey and his team studied the lives of 700 cows from the award-winning Langhill herd, taking more than 2000 blood samples. They found that telomeres, which protect the end of chromosomes, deteriorate the most soon after birth, indicating how long and healthily an animal may live. The results could help human geneticists investigate how to prolong our life expectancy.

“We decided to study telomere length in dairy cows because of the work that’s been done in humans already”, he told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland. “There’s great breadth of work that suggests that telomere length in humans affects ageing in as much as young humans have long telomeres and old humans have short telomeres.”

“Each time the cell divides they get damaged a little bit more and so, over time, they get shorter”, he explained. “Hopefully that information then can contribute to the understanding of the way ageing takes place in humans”, he said.

If the scientists can identify factors that affect telomere shortening, and the rate at which they get shorter, that might contribute to understanding how humans can have a healthier, longer life.

Professor Coffey said the Dumfries herd was ideal for the study. “These cows are kept in a very controlled environment so we can do observations on them knowing that the differences between the cows is actually genetic and not management because they’re all managed the same way throughout their entire lives”, he said.

The research, published in Frontiers in Genetics, showed that dairy cows that lived longer had longer telomeres.

Professor Melissa Bateson, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, said the work could prove really important.

“It can contribute to our understanding of what kind of lifestyle factors are going to make you live a long, healthy life and which ones might be going to make you die young”, she said.

However, she dismissed the idea that companies could measure telomeres and give life expectancy advice because the measurements could be inaccurate and every person’s telomeres were different.

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J.J. Ilska-Warner, A. Psifidi, L.A. Seeker, et al. The genetic architecture of bovine telomere length in early life and association with animal fitness. Frontiers in Genetics.