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By Susanne Rockwell on May 3, 2016

Backyard chickens. Yard birds. Or as I call these clucking neighbors: the most popular egg-laying pet in my community — we even fundraise for our schools using the annual Tour de Cluck

My friends who love their fowl-feathered pets depend on UC Davis for chicken health tips and research. The latest news is rather inspiring:  We are developing a new breed that promises to help with food security in Africa.

Specifically, our poultry experts, led by Huaijun Zhou, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, are taking an innovative genomic approach that promises to outmaneuver Newcastle disease, which is the leading killer of chickens in the developing world.

Developing a better chicken

UC Davis is developing a disease-resistant, heat-tolerant breed of chicken for climate-stressed areas in Africa, where small-scale poultry production has the potential to significantly reduce malnutrition. Threats like Newcastle disease stand as a huge barrier, as they can devastate flocks up to twice a year.

We have a well-earned reputation for working with chickens. Did you know that in 2002, in collaboration with a statewide effort, our researchers developed rapid diagnostic tests to detect Newcastle disease? By more quickly identifying and isolating affected birds, researchers were able to help contain a major outbreak, saving producers more than $500 million.

Chickens, eggs offer simpler way for food security

Poultry represents a great opportunity to increase food security because, unlike cattle or other large livestock, chickens can be raised on small plots and require fewer resources. They’re also nutritious and provide not only meat, but also a steady supply of eggs. 

So what is the problem? The most challenging traits in poultry production — disease resistance and heat tolerance — limit their potential as a food source. That’s what our folks at the One Health Institute and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are tackling in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry.

An alternative to using only vaccines

The researchers are relying on genetic improvement, as an alternative to just vaccines, because they believe this holistic approach to a very complex problem could put a check on malnutrition.

Vaccines are difficult to reliably distribute. In some cases, they need to be kept cold from production to delivery, which is not easy in rural Africa. We’re also dealing with trust issues after incidents in which the vials delivered to farmers did not actually contain the vaccine.

Our program will help vaccines do their job by creating a more-resistant indigenous chicken that responds better to vaccination and challenges in Africa.

And that is what impresses me:  The connection between this new chicken breed and food security. Along with it being a problem here in California, food security is a problem we recognize across the world. Our university is doing something about it in connection with the U.S Agency for International Development’s agricultural research and capacity building work. It’s under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

You can also clearly see the connection between our poultry research program and the One Health approach: At UC Davis, we stress that the health and well-being of animals, people and their shared environment are inextricably linked. 

Susanne Rockwell, a longtime campus communicator and UC Davis alumna, is web editor for the homesite. Justin Cox, content marketing manager for the UC Davis One Health Institute, wrote the news story this post is based on.