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January 3, 2011

Wild Turkey

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The U.S. Poultry Genome Website

Animal Facts: Turkeys

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We gobble them up at Thanksgiving but the rest of the year turkeys don't get the attention they deserve, say a couple of turkey genetics researchers. As this ScienCentral News video reports, their turkey genome project isn't just tomfoolery.

Not Just a Big Chicken

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, you can rest assured that we can now add turkey to the list of important food animals— like cows, pigs, sheep and chickens— that have a genome project. A draft map of the turkey genome has been published.

Kent Reed, a professor in the department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and David Harry, who led the research at Nicholas Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California, mapped roughly 100 out of the approximately 25,000 genes in the turkey genome.

"Turkey is one of the few agricultural species which really was sort of lacking as far as genetic tools," says Reed. "A turkey essentially isn't just a big chicken," he adds, but because the two birds share many similarities, researchers are currently comparing the turkey genome to the recently published chicken genome. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to turkey genetics," says Reed. "We can borrow a lot from the chicken side."

The researchers say the first DNA tests for turkeys will likely help just with telling them apart. "Some of these genetic tools, we call them genetic markers, can help us verify that when we say these are the offspring of these two birds, mom and dad, that indeed they really are," says Harry. "And that can help us make our breeding efforts even more efficient."

With increasing interest in antibiotic-free turkeys, Reed and Harry say genetic tools are needed for studying traits like disease resistance. "The development of DNA testing for the purposes of being able to do breeding is very powerful because rather than exposing the bird to a disease agent, we can essentially take a picture of its DNA and make some predictions about whether or not it's more or less likely to be susceptible or resistant to disease," says Harry. "That's very exciting from a breeding standpoint."

Willie Benedetti, the owner of Willie Bird Turkeys in Sonoma, California, says that over his 50 years in the business, turkey breeding has become a science that has led to bigger, better birds. "If you go back 40 years you never got a hen any bigger in a bag then 14 to 16 pounds," he says. "It was just never heard of. Over the last 40 years of genetics and improved feed, today we get hen turkeys that…go up to 30 lbs."

Reed and Harry say there's no need to consider genetically modifying turkeys, because on top of traditional breeding, the new knowledge from the turkey genome will be, well, gravy. "Our ideal in doing this is that we produce a better product and that…is always measured by what a consumers wants to purchase and consume and enjoy," says Harry. "The Thanksgiving turkey is a tradition that people have maintained for a couple of hundred years and a belief, I think, deep-seated for anybody working with a turkey is that their efforts will lead to, continue to lead to producing a bird that people are going to enjoy around the Thanksgiving table."

This research appeared in the November 2003 issue of Genome, and was funded by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Reed's research is supported in part by a Cargill Research Excellence Fellowship.

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