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Prof. Kim Cheng works with chickens and quail that hold the key to a safer poultry supply - photo by Martin Dee
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. 6, 2008

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 ordinary birds.

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, B.C.

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 global industry.

“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 Cheng.
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 trial.

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.

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Last reviewed 06-Nov-2008

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