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Monday, 10 April, 2000, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Scientists aim for chicken coup
The rough map is on the web
Scientists have produced a rough map of the chicken genome, the complete set of biochemical instructions that give life to the bird.

Right now we're building our interstate on the highway map of the chicken genome

Dr Hans Cheng
The map contains some 2,000 important markers that will guide researchers when they come to decode all of animal's genes in next few years.

A completed genome would aid the creation of larger, disease-free animals and the development of "super eggs" which have an enhanced nutritional content.

The map is the work of researchers in the US, UK and the Netherlands and draws on the efforts of a large number of scientists worldwide engaged in the Poultry Genome Project.

Sooner rather than later

"Right now we're building our interstate on the highway map of the chicken genome," said Dr Hans Cheng, from the US Department of Agriculture's Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Michigan. "This will tell us where to look to find important genes and then, if we want to make a complete map, it will tell us how to build all the roads in between."

A directed effort to decode the chicken's entire genetic make up is still a few years away. So far, sequencing dollars have been directed at the human genome and those animals that are used as model organisms, such as the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and the small soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

But the importance of the chicken in the human diet means that the sequencing robots and computers are bound to turn their attention to the bird sooner rather than later.

Scientists believe the knowledge gained would have major health and cash benefits.

Healthier chickens

"Knowing all the bird's genes would help us produce healthier chickens that grow faster and eat less feed," Dr Cheng told BBC News Online. "And from the point of view of the producers, a healthier chicken needs fewer antibiotics in its feed - so there is an economic benefit as well."

Chickens have 50-80,000 genes
An important goal would be to find a way to induce a natural resistance in the chicken to salmonella, a major food contaminant frequently carried in the bird's ovaries

A completed genome would also aid those efforts already underway to design "super eggs". These would have an enhanced nutritional content. Some scientists even believe eggs could be used to deliver drugs or make industrial products such as plastics.

It is thought the chicken has about 50-80,000 genes arranged on 39 pairs of chromosomes.

Genome comparisons

Many of these genes are shared with humans - probably more than 80%. Determining precisely how the other 20% differ will be fascinating.

"Almost all the proteins that you and I have probably exist in varying forms in the chicken. You can say this is true in almost all higher organisms.

"The differences become apparent in the slight variations in when and where the genes are expressed - that creates the unique organism.

"There are a lot of people right now trying to understand why, despite everything being so similar, we look so dissimilar."

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05 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Similarity in diversity
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