So what’s all this business about A2 milk? How is it different from A1 milk? Is it hooey? What do these codes refer to anyway?
Starting with the last question first, A1 and A2 refer to “versions” of the beta-casein gene. In this case, the gene in question encodes the protein beta-casein, one of three casein proteins, which is, of course, a key component of cheese. The A2 version of this protein varies just a little bit in its structure from the A1 version. An individual cow’s genotype could be A1A1, A2A2, or A1A2 for the beta-casein gene; her milk would then contain whichever protein versions her genes dictate.
The a2 Milk Company claims that A2-only milk is easier on digestion. A recent study has suggested that in milk-sensitive individuals, milk containing A1 protein may be associated with symptoms of discomfort after milk consumption, and with strictly A2 milk those symptoms may be lessened. Also, gastrointestinal transit time appears to be slower with A1 milk consumption but, contrarily, yielding softer stools. Additional studies to provide replication of these findings are needed. Early studies on A1 and A2 milk that suggested a link between A1 milk and several diseases have been unsupported by subsequent investigations. That is, there is no evidence that consuming milk containing A1 protein carries any disease risk.
So, should breeding decisions be made on the basis of beta-casein genotype? Or perhaps the question is, is A2 milk a fad or a legitimate, long-term slice of the market? Does A1 vs. A2 matter for yogurt or cheese making? There is a lot we still don’t know about the biology of milk. However, there would seem to be little risk in choosing A2A2 bulls. There are quite of few of them out there, although the number varies by breed. The most comprehensive and recent documentation of beta-casein genotype by breed has been compiled by the Canadian Dairy Network (see table).
Available data from U.S. cattle are more limited in number and over 20 years old. Interestingly, Zebu- or Brahman-type cattle have a very high frequency of A2A2.
Bottom line, don’t compromise your primary genetic objectives for your herd just to chase an A2A2 genotype, but there’s likely no harm in moving that direction if it makes sense for your market of the future.
For a deeper dive into the biology of A1 and A2, read on.
A1 and A2 refer to types of gene variants of the beta-casein gene. A gene variant (an allele, for those who remember their biology) is when we have a difference in the DNA sequence for a particular gene. The A2 gene variant encodes a proline (a particular amino acid; you’ll recall that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) at position 67 in the 209-amino acid chain that forms beta-casein (see figure below). The A1 gene variant encodes a histidine at position 67.
The A1 beta-casein protein is thought likely to be cleaved (cut) during gastrointestinal digestion at the position 67 histidine, while A2 beta-caseins are less likely to be cleaved there. Cleavage at amino acid 67 generates a short protein (a peptide) called beta-casomorphin-7 (abbreviated BCM7). BCM7 has opioid properties. Now, no need for concern. We all know that while milk is tasty, it is not a very effective painkiller nor brain manipulator. It is possible though, that BCM7 may have some effect on processes in the gut, such as slowing the rate of passage. Also, all milk contains additional types of opioid peptides. Other foods (from animals and plants) do as well.