Team cracks chicken's genetic code

Genome: The achievement by a group of international scientists could help in the fight against the deadly avian flu.

Medicine & Science

March 15, 2004|By Lisa D. Tossey | Lisa D. Tossey,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A team of international scientists has cracked the chicken's genetic code, a development that could aid in the fight against avian flu.

The researchers assembled the genome of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), an ancestor of domestic chickens, and have placed the genetic sequence in a public database for use by other scientists.

It is the first bird genome to be completed and includes about 1 billion base pairs of DNA, the molecules that carry genetic information necessary for the organization and functioning of most living cells. By comparison, the human genome spans about 3 billion pairs.

The research team, led by Richard Wilson of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is "annotating, filling in the blanks and analyzing" the initial assembly of the sequence, said Geoff Spencer, a spokesman for the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, which provided $13 million for the research.

"Even in a rough draft form, it can help," Spencer said. "Research will be accelerated by having this tool."

Recent outbreaks of avian flu throughout the world have increased interest in how genetic variation plays a role in the resistance levels of different birds. Researchers will be able to use the genome to identify genes that might help chickens ward off various strains of the flu, they said.

Mo Saif, a poultry disease expert with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, said having the sequence will aid research in finding chickens that have such resistance. But he warned, "The benefits will not be immediate. The more accurate and inclusive the sequence becomes, the better."

Poultry farmers in Maryland were on edge after an avian flu outbreak this month in Pocomoke City. The strain of flu found on the Worcester County farm, known as H7, does not pose a threat to people but can be deadly to the birds. It is the same strain that was found on two Delaware poultry farms last month, said Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Oberg said 118,000 birds were slaughtered on the affected farm last week. Another 210,000 birds that tested negative for the flu on a related farm will be destroyed as a preventive measure.

The poultry industry is Maryland's largest agricultural sector, accounting for 31 percent of the state's $1.4 billion agricultural industry, Oberg said. Nationwide, Maryland ranks seventh in broiler-chicken production, she said.

In addition to their role in the food supply, chickens are also widely used in biomedical research and as a model for studying embryology and development.

The Washington University team has lined up the Gallus gallus genome with the human genetic sequence, enabling scientists to compare them.

By examining the two genomes, researchers can to look for similar gene sequences that might help them develop new ways to combat human disease.

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