Best in sheep research 2023

Welcome to the inaugural best in sheep research awards where we arbitrarily celebrate the sheep-based science of the past year. By Dr Nicola Dennis.

In Livestock12 Minutes


If you can’t get the green-on-paper consumers to buy strong wool in the form of carpets and drapes, then you will have to sneak it into their shopping trolley via other means.

No end of papers from scientists took up the wool-hiding challenge which made it hard for our judging committee to pick a winner.

Researchers were covertly sneaking wool into brake pads for trains, into structural additives for cement and into 3D printing polymers. But our winners took it a step further by hiding it in flexible electronics.

Consumers will never look for it there!

A round of applause please for “Using wool keratin as a structural biomaterial and natural mediator to fabricate biocompatible and robust bioelectronic platforms” from the physics department at Xiamen University (China).

Electronics are great and all, but they are not very bendy. Stiff wires and hard soldered chips are so yesterday, manufacturers want to print their electrical circuits on flexible surfaces like paper, or stick them to people for health monitoring, or use them in stretchable skin-like material for “human-computer interfaces” (e.g. robotic prosthetics or electronic gloves to operate equipment).

This requires ink that can carry an electric charge. For reasons our physics-weak judging panel doesn’t fully understand, carbon-nanotubes are the thing to use in electro-conductive inks. However, carbon nanotubes hate water and are not a fan of many bio-friendly solvents either.

So making these nanotubes into a soluble and stable ink has been a real challenge. Until these researchers added in some keratin (extracted from wool). Now they have a sustainable, electric ink that stores for months before use and can be fed into a commercial printer to make flexible, stretchable circuits.


Printing with wool is cool, but can you print on wool? Wool is a sustainable and environmentally friendly fibre, until you start messing with its colour. Some pretty hefty chemicals can be used to dye textiles. A fair bit of effluent is also left over from old school “dump it in a bucket of dye” methods and it is best not to think about how much of that ends up in the waterways of developing countries.

One way to cut down on water use is to print directly on to the near-finished products with ink-jet printers. Say what you like about the pesky ink-jet printers and their incessant demands, but you must admit they barely take a sip of water.

The textile industry is already feeding carpets and fabrics into printers on a small scale, but finding the right mix of pre-treatments and inks is a challenge, particularly for wool. It looks like plenty of textile scientists are on the case – if the number of papers coming out with “wool” and “inkjet” in the title are anything to go by.

Our winner is “Inkjet printing of plasma surface–modified wool and cotton fabrics with plant‑based inks” from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. The judging committee were initially confused as to why everyone wanted to put blood products on carpet, until they were kindly reminded that plasma is also a state of matter.

Solid, liquid, gas… and then we all quit chemistry before anyone discussed plasma and the rest of them. Bombarding wool with plasma air (e.g. super-excited air) is a reasonable way, environmentally, to prepare wool’s natural protective layer for dying.

The researchers used a device called a vacuum plasma cleaner which looks like a glowing washing machine. Stars were then printed on woollen fabric using dye derived from herbal extracts. These were tested (with good results) for colour fastness.


If you haven’t been messing around with ChatGPT, then you aren’t living 2023 to its fullest. Frighteningly capable machines are having their moment right now. Let’s add to the drama by teaching them to slice flesh!

Engineers have been noodling over the idea of automating meat processing for a long time, with limited success. It is possible to burn millions of dollars just to replicate one barely trained university student with a knife.

Computers are flummoxed by biological variation (e.g. smaller and larger carcases) and movement (e.g. carcases swinging on a hook)… and that is what will keep us alive during the robot uprising.

Some breakthroughs are taking place. Our judging committee was impressed with a dual robotic system being trialled in Wuhan, China, where one robot scans the sheep carcase and tells a different robot where to cut it.

Theoretically this system could cut a carcase in seven places to break it down to basic primal cuts (as long as it wasn’t allowed to swing on the hook), but the engineers stopped short of actually giving the robot a knife. Too soon for you, Wuhan? We totally understand.

Ultimately the prize goes to the Norwegians for their use of “smart knives”. The paper, “Quality assessment of fresh meat cuts as a performance indicator of knives specifically adapted for robot-assisted operations” was based on pork. But we can use our imagination. Knowing where to cut is one thing, but knowing what your knife is doing is also important.

The Norwegian RoBUTCHER project has developed a smart knife with microwave sensors that detect when it is in contact with meat and how deep it is cutting. Sensing how the knife is behaving will help robots to better mimic human butchers.

A lab robot was given this smart knife under very controlled circumstances (a pork loin appears to have been nailed to a bench). It did an okay job of slicing it up. The judging panel was unable to tell which samples had been cut by the robot and which were done by a human with a normal knife. That’s a small step toward robo butchers. Small steps are what we want.


The weather is set to get warmer and much more erratic, but surely it’s not all bad. Is it? Among the predictions of more heat stress, greater worm burdens and drought issues, is our winner “Understanding the impacts of climate change on lamb survival and lambing date in Southern New Zealand” from AgResearch Invermay.

This research predicts lamb survival in flat and hill country farms in Northern Southland, South Canterbury and West Otago under a variety of climate change scenarios. The results are… not totally depressing.

Southern lambs wouldn’t mind it a little bit warmer and it will be warm enough to grow grass slightly earlier in the spring.

“As temperatures rise, farmers may have the opportunity to shift lambing about one day earlier every one to two years, helping mitigate potentially higher risk of drought-induced summer feed deficit.” Something to look forward to, we guess.


As soon as I saw “Genetics of phenotypic evolution in sheep: a molecular look at diversity-driving genes” from Northwest A&F University in Yangling, China, I knew it was worth buying magenta ink for my printer.

This particularly pretty paper has no less than eight posters comparing the world’s weirdest sheep breeds. This is not your typical pasty white line up of woollies you would normally see.

Scientists all over the world have been studying fat-tailed sheep, black-boned sheep, pointy-, droopy- and missing-eared sheep, dwarf sheep, multi-horned sheep, funny-coloured sheep, as well as boring things like fleece characteristics and fat colour.

They have been gene editing and crossbreeding in an effort to work out which genes bring about these funky phenotypes. Crucial groundwork if you want to develop DNA tests for these traits. This review paper compiles the results from the latest genetic studies in technicolour. It is 27 pages long so I can’t do it justice here (go look it up, it is worth the effort).

The highlights are:

  1. Black-boned sheep are exactly what they sound like
  2. Horned vs polled sheep remains a complicated genetic mystery,
  3. The Chinese have genetically engineered Merinos with abnormally long wool,
  4. A 1600-year-old naturally mummified sheep was found in an Iranian salt mine,
  5. Breeding sheep with extra nipples appears to be a waste of time!

And with that bombshell, it is time to wrap this up. You can now turn this page with full confidence that the world’s scientists are pushing the sheepie frontier to new horizons.