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NC1008: Advanced Technologies for the Genetic Improvement of Poultry (was NC-168)

Statement of Issues and Justification

Poultry meat and eggs are major protein sources in the American diet, with per capita consumptions of broiler meat and eggs at 80.3 pounds and 251.8 eggs, respectively in 2002. Turkey production also steadily increased over the last three decades and per capita consumption has remained at about 17.5 pounds for the last couple of years. The U.S. consumption of chicken meat is higher than either beef or pork, which are estimated at 67.8 and 51.6 pounds, respectively for the same year (Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, LDP-M-100, 10.17.02; USDA Economic Research Service). The U.S. also continues to be one of the leading exporters of poultry (broiler) meat, and exports are predicted to be 5,450 million pounds for 2003. To meet domestic and international demands for chicken meat, the U.S. boiler chicken industry is expected to produce 33,000 billion pounds for 2003. The U.S. egg industry reached an average number of 276 million egg-layers in 2002, and the U.S. table egg production is predicted to be 6,110 million dozen for 2003. This number is slightly down from the previous year.

The unprecedented growth of the poultry industry (three-fold increase in the U.S. in the past 25 years) is partly due to the applications of modern scientific principles in genetic selection, disease control, nutrition, and management programs. To support and sustain the poultry sector, continuous improvements in science and technology must be made, tested, and transferred to the poultry breeding industry. The poultry industry must then diligently apply these new technologies to improve the production efficiency and performance of their populations. Primary breeders are responsible for the genetic improvements in poultry, and the improved genetic products are multiplied through the hatchery system. The hatcheries, in turn, supply these more efficient birds to producers and growers in nearby states. The result is greater efficiency at all levels, with gains in production efficiency being passed to the consumer, as lower commodity prices. The U.S. consumers enjoy one of the lowest disposable income fractions (12%) spent on food in the world, partly because of the preference for consumption of poultry products that are produced economically by a highly organized, efficient and technologically advanced agricultural system.

Fewer major poultry breeders exist today compared to a few years ago, and they operate on a narrow profit margin. Any technologies that are developed in house by one company would be kept as an industrial secret to protect their competitive advantage. At the same time, they are heavily dependent upon public information from academia and other institutions that provide experimental results associated with new technologies. The important interactions of NC-681 researchers with poultry industry representatives allow communication through a public knowledgebase and help to avoid many of the potentially serious problems in the industry associated with production and disease. Our efforts in advanced genetic technologies will be most useful to the primary breeders where the technologies can be applied to the breeding stocks. Because of the concentrated structure of the poultry breeding industry, this segment of animal agriculture is one of the best suited for applications of new and profitable technologies. Complementary to the highly structured industry is the information that is readily available about the biology of the chicken. The short generation interval, large family size, well-documented biochemical and morphological mutations and embryonic stages, existence of a detailed karyotype and a continued increase in available gene sequences makes the chicken an ideal model for development and application of biotechnological applications from emerging fields of scientific investigations. The advances in molecular biology and genetics point the way to new technologies that can be coupled with established breeding programs to provide the tools needed by the US. Poultry industry to maintain its competitive edge in the future.

Animal agriculture, to date, has depended upon effecting genetic improvement by estimating genotypic value by measuring phenotypic traits. This practice has severe limitations, especially in traits that are sex-limited (egg production) or require expensive testing (measurement of carcass traits or disease resistance) or testing late in life (reproductive traits). Progress made in molecular genetics will allow evaluation of some traits at the genotypic level, opening the possibility of early classification of live birds and use of marker-assisted selection in breeding programs. In addition to the identification of genes, understanding their action when transferred to a new location will be important in application of new discoveries. This area will be enhanced by investigations of gene action in their original position and after transfer by classical or new technologies.

Avian genomics has made considerable progress, including mapping of almost 2000 genetic markers into 50 linkage groups, sequencing of close to 400,000 expressed sequence tags, construction of at least 4 large insert genomic BAC libraries, and development of a consensus chicken genetic map, based on three different reference mapping populations. The chicken genome is one-third the size of the human genome and it is currently on the short list of genome sequencing. In addition, comparative analysis of the chicken genome with the human genome indicates that there is a high degree of conserved syntenic groups. Because chickens continue to serve as a vertebrate model for virus-induced cancer, embryonic development, immune cell development and differentiation, nervous system development, autoimmune diseases, and others, advanced research in chicken genomics is required. Applications of biotechnology in poultry are expanding and in fact, gene transfer technologies have advanced to the point that several companies are beginning to commercialize the process of making transgenic birds, and several biomedically-important proteins are being generated through these molecular biology processes. The continued use of gene transfer will require technologies that provide efficient and commercially acceptable methods for the introduction of foreign DNA. Only then can the full impact of biotechnology on improving poultry production, as well as developing the egg as a bioprocessor be realized.

Many of the Advanced Technologies that we are proposing in this new project derive from the remarkable progress that has been made in human molecular genetics, culminating with the recent completion of the human genome sequence (International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, 2001; Venter et al., 2001). The completion of the human genome sequence is widely understood to be a landmark event in biology that will clearly revolutionize not only medical genetics, but all of vertebrate biology, including poultry science. Indeed, some have even termed the next century to be the post genome sequence era of biology.

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