The loss of genetically important poultry research stock has reached crisis proportions and now threatens to inhibit advances in both agricultural and biomedical sciences, according to Mary Delany, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis.
For more than a century, genetic research using chickens, ducks and quail, as well as other poultry species, has provided clues to a number of scientific puzzles in basic biology, medicine and agriculture. These include a better understanding of basic development; of diseases like cancer, scleroderma and muscular dystrophy; and of resistance and susceptibility to agriculturally important poultry diseases.
But during the past three decades and particularly during the past five years, research collections of genetically characterized poultry lines have fallen victim to budget cutbacks, staffing shortages and inadequate federal funding in both the agricultural and medical arenas.
Now gone is a genetic line of chickens that was predisposed to cleft palate, the fourth most common inherited disorder in humans. Also eliminated was the research stock of chickens that served as a model for studying scleroderma, an incurable disease that affects the connective tissue and internal organs of more than 300,000 people in the United States alone.
"It's ironic that just as the sequencing of the genome of the domestic chicken is nearing completion, we are decimating the genetic resources that we depend on for unraveling the basis of genetic variation that controls growth, development and disease," said Delany, an avian geneticist in the UC Davis Department of Animal Science. A forum piece on this topic by Delany and poultry scientist Janet E. Fulton will appear in the June 13 issue of the journal Science. Fulton is a molecular biologist with the poultry-breeding firm Hy-Line International, headquartered in Iowa.
The researchers cite a survey conducted by the Avian Genetic Resources Task Force, which found that more than 238 poultry research stocks were eliminated just between 1984 and 1998. This represented a 40-percent loss in research stocks in the United States and 60 percent in Canada. One-of-a-kind genetic lines were dropped, often with little warning to the research community.
Delany and Fulton note that the decline in poultry stocks is due to budget and staffing reductions at many universities and reallocations of funding away from agricultural research toward creation of new research initiatives like molecular biology and genomics. The loss of independent poultry-science departments also has contributed to the funding problem.
When it comes to federal funding, scientists interested in maintaining poultry genetic resources are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, they note. Federal funding is available on a competitive basis from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for maintaining collections of living organisms, but both agencies have historically considered poultry to fall within the realm of agricultural research.
However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the primary source of federal funding for agricultural research, operates its National Animal Germplasm Program on just $600,000 annually. This program is charged with cryopreservation of the genetic material for a broad spectrum of agricultural animal species, including dairy and beef cattle, swine, small ruminants, aquatic organisms and poultry. The program has no mandate or resources to support collections of living animals.
The problem is further complicated by the need to maintain poultry genetic resources in the form of living collections, rather than merely as frozen samples of semen and embryos. For most poultry species, including chickens, cryopreservation of genetic material has severely limited success rates. In the case of other poultry, cryopreservation has not been fully developed.
To protect and improve existing collections of poultry genetic resources, Delany and Fulton recommend that:
- NIH and NSF broaden their genetic resources programs to include bird species and encourage proposals focusing on poultry;
- the USDA develop a new competitive funding program to provide long-term support for genetic resource collections for agricultural animals and make available funding for research on cryopreservation of germplasm of birds; and
- an Avian Genetic Resources System, as described by the Avian Genetic Resources Task Force report, be established to coordinate preservation and development of avian genetic resources in both the United States and Canada. The report estimated this would cost approximately $17 million to initiate, plus $1 million annually to cover ongoing expenses.
"Given the recent resurgence of concern for our agriculturally important livestock animals and the importance of research related to food safety, human health and bioterrorism, as well as biology and biomedicine, it is almost inconceivable that the specialized agricultural animal genetic populations and their variants, of poultry and other livestock have no long-term federal support mechanism or conservation planning," conclude Delany and Fulton.