As far as poultry farmers are concerned, feed equals money. The more efficient chickens are at turning feed into thighs, breast and drumsticks, the healthier their bottom line. It turns out that the same science that can help poultry farmers raise more feed-efficient chickens could help people become healthier, too.
Sammy Aggrey, professor of poultry science at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), studies the ways in which genes affect how chickens process feed. What he’s found has led to the development of more efficient broiler (meat) chickens, but his research also has implications in the fight against obesity in people.
Humans and chickens are enough alike that Aggrey's discovery and other genetic research on chickens may lead scientists to similar findings in humans.
"One of the beauties of using chickens is that the research can be done quickly," Aggrey said. "Then biomedical researchers can use it right away in their work with humans. When we find genes in chickens that act in a certain way, we expect to find the same types of genes in humans."
Currently, Aggrey’s lab focuses on the nutrigenomics of poultry, investigating the genes that are responsible for processing the amino acids and other nutrients in chicken feed.
Several genes affect the way birds digest carbohydrates, amino acids and fat. The metabolism of amino acids like methionine and cysteine affects the way the birds process antioxidants to battle stress and disease. His lab is also investigating how feed and genetics impact the bird’s microbiome and parasite loads.
This research into the genetics of metabolism and resiliency have financial implications for the poultry farmers in the U.S., but it can also help make poultry farming workable in developing nations.
Farmers with fewer resources to feed, cool and heat poultry flocks need bred birds to be more resilient and feed efficient. Aggrey’s work will help produce chickens that are better adapted to different environments and situations.
“Most of the breeds that they have are unproductive, so we’re trying to understand how we can improve the local breeds so that they are a bit more productive,” Aggrey said. “For them, it’s not only a source of protein but a means of getting out of poverty. Because when they are able to sell eggs and meat, it gives them income. Raising chickens gives them household food security and also gives them some financial security.”
Meeting these specific breeding goals and understanding how genetics impacts the health and efficiency of birds has become increasingly possible in the last two decades thanks to a better understanding of chicken genetics and data science.
“We used to breed without a lot of information. When the genome was sequenced, the sequence provided us with unprecedented data to accurately determine the genetic worth of animals,” Aggrey said. “That comes with a lot of computation.”
To incorporate all of this new genetic information, Aggrey has had to collaborate with other geneticists to develop analytic tools to aid in breeding.
Focusing on breeding “less fatty chickens” may impact the lives of humans in many ways — giving farmers a higher profit margin, helping secure access to protein in developing nations and shedding light on the mystery of human metabolism and the causes of obesity.
To watch Aggrey discuss his work visit youtu.be/m-lxfOyHZmo .
For more information about the research being done at CAES, visit research.caes.uga.edu. For more information about the work being done at the UGA Department of Poultry Science, visit poultry.caes.uga.edu.