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Chickens rise from cutting board to cutting edge

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Chicken isn’t just for dinner anymore. As a new university textbook shows, biotechnology has taken this lowly bird from the cutting board to the cutting edge.

"Chickens are used for more biotech research than any other animal," said Sammy Aggrey, a quantitative and molecular geneticist with the University of Georgia poultry science department.

The new book, "Poultry Genetics, Breeding and Biotechnology," edited by Aggrey and Bill Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University, shows two distinct poultry science communities: those who study the chicken as an agricultural commodity and those who study the chicken to better understand human disease.

Building a better chicken

"In the 1950s, the problem was producing enough chickens," Aggrey said. "Over the last 50 years, we solved that problem but created new problems – mostly breeding problems. The first part of the book is about those problems and issues that need to be solved."

The second part of the book addresses poultry diseases. Approximately 40 percent of the meat produced in the United States today is chicken. Because the farms necessary to meet this demand are so large, disease transmission among the birds and their resistance to drugs have become critical issues for poultry scientists.

Birds for biotechnology

The final section of the book addresses poultry genetics. It's here that the chicken’s role in biotechnology becomes apparent.

That role is why, Aggrey said, chickens are high on the list of animals to be genetically sequenced for the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), whose mission is to understand the structure and function of the human genome and its role in health and disease.

"One important way to understand [the human genome] is to compare it with the genomes of different animals, such as the chicken," said Aggrey. "The organization of the chicken genome is much closer to that of a human than a mouse or rat. That is why this book is so important -– not just for poultry research but for the entire fields of genomics and biotechnology.”

The poultry genetics 'bible'

The idea for new textbook was hatched almost three years ago. Since 1990, the standard book for poultry genetics was "Poultry Breeding and Genetics," published amid some controversy, when Aggrey was finishing his Master's degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

"Little did I know that I would be co-editing the next one," he says with a laugh.

Aggrey and Muir sought out the definitive, most current work to be included in the new book.

"We searched scientific databases for every geneticist on earth and what they've done for the past 20 years," Aggrey said. "We looked not simply at their reputations but at their real work."

Once they had chosen the scientists, they paired up those whose work was similar and each pair then wrote a chapter together.

"If I write by myself, I write about my own work," Aggrey said. "When I write with my competitor, it becomes more spicy. We may disagree here and there, or even agree to disagree but the end product is excellent."

The book was edited in cyberspace since the contributors hailed from around the world. Even the editors never met face-to-face as they compiled the book.

The result, Aggrey believes, is "fantastic."

"The Poultry Genome Newsletter calls the book 'a new bible for poultry genetics,'" he said. "There is a lot of appeal for everyone in the biotech fields, including those working on humans."

Copies of the book can be obtained at www.cabi-publishing.org.

(Cat Holmes is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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