Prof. Kim Cheng works with chickens and quail that hold the
key to a safer poultry supply - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 11 | Nov.
No Ordinary Chickens
By Brian Lin
They may look and walk like chickens, but the two-legged
fowls at the Avian Genetic Resource Centre (AGRC) are no
The AGRC is a partnership between UBC’s Faculty of
Land and Food Systems and Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada,
based in the Pacific Agricultural Research Centre in Agassiz,
The nine lines of chickens and nine lines of Japanese quail
at the AGRC represent a collection of unique genetic variations
and may hold the key to a safer poultry supply and higher
economic potentials. Each of the more than 3,500 chickens
and quail at the facility is carefully bred and pedigreed.
Collectively, they build a living genetic library consisting
of a wide variety of genetic mutations. In addition, genetic
materials from most of the major chicken breeds in Canada
are kept in the deep freeze for preservation. The treasure
trove of avian genetics makes B.C. a key resource in the
“There are currently only two international chicken
breeding companies supplying commercial breeding stocks to
the whole world,” says UBC Avian Genetics Prof. Kim
Cheng. “While flock uniformity is convenient for production
and processing, the lack of genetic variation also leaves
the door wide open for large-scale disease outbreaks.
“A flock could become susceptible to a new strain
of virus such as Avian Flu and be completely wiped out,” says
Poultry stocks today are exposed to more diseases than ever
and chronic use of antibiotics has also slowed down the process
of new genetic variations that could resist new pathogens.
“The genetic resources at AGRC allow scientists from
all over the world to study how genome affects size and meat
quality, disease resistance, how well particular breeds could
adapt to farm facilities and how we can help industry improve
housing environments and breeding practices,” says
Cheng, who is also an expert on exotic birds.
Poultry and its allied feed and processing sectors are a
major industry in Canada. The value of poultry products totalled
$2.6 billion in 2004 and there’s a new industry blooming
abroad promising significant economic opportunities.
“Specialty birds such as Japanese quail, Partridge
tinamou and Emu are gaining popularity in Asia and Europe
for their oil, meat and eggs,” says Cheng. “The
expertise being cultivated at AGRC puts B.C. in an ideal
position to become a leading exporter of these highly specialized
products while diversifying existing operations.”
Genome research on birds may also lead to advances in human
health, says Cheng, whose work almost three decades ago recently
helped successfully reverse congenital blindness in a clinical
In 1980, Cheng discovered a gene mutation in a line
of Rhode Island Red (RIR) chickens that produced blindness
at hatching. The blind chickens were passed onto the Dept.
of Neuroscience at the University of Florida for further
analysis and the gene was later sequenced.
“The research group at the U of F found that the gene
in the blind chicken had the same sequence as a human gene
that caused a form of congenital blindness called Leber’s
Congenital Amaurosis,” says Cheng.
Using the blind chicken in their study, the U of F team
further developed a gene therapy that restored vision to
the blind chicken in 2006 and last April, a team of researchers
from the University of Pennsylvania furthered the method
to partially restore sight to three human patients.
Both the RIR and the blind chicken lines are housed at AGRC.