Research Could Lead to a New Breed of Superchicken

Photographer: Carl Schmidt/University of Delaware via Bloomberg
A Naked Neck chicken breed in Uganda, in 2012.

For all the concern about how climate change may affect people in cities, people in cars, people and their flood insurance and people in general, few people are considering how the chickens will fare.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is on the case, supporting research into breeds of bird that tolerate heat better than the current industrial variety. In short, a climate superchicken.

Carl Schmidt, a professor at the University of Delaware, is using a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the genetic make-up of chickens, searching for traits that help regulate temperature. The "backyard chickens" under study, mostly from Uganda and Kenya, live in environments where high heat and disease are more common than they are in the temperature-controlled, antibiotic-choked industrial facilities that house their cramped American cousins.

By identifying genes that help hot-weather chickens tolerate warmth -- for example, genes that inhibit feathering around the neck -- researchers might be able to breed the traits into other populations. In other words (and apologies in advance): If you can't take the heat, get out of the chicken.

The research is part of a $30 million, five-year USDA program to find ways to prevent livestock from either under-producing or keeling over prematurely as the world warms and temperatures spike.

Researchers are probing other traits as well. Chicken producers' biggest contribution to climate pollution comes from the transport of feed, according to a description of Schmidt's project on the USDA website. That means copious emissions might be averted, and resources saved, if there is a way to breed chickens that make better use of less food.

Schmidt’s work on the project finishes up next year, but that could be just the beginning for superchicken research. He and colleagues at Iowa State and North Carolina State universities have identified some 200 genes potentially related to heat management. Progress will be slow, as researchers can focus only on one or two at a time. If all goes well, laboratory test breeding of chickens for better heat resistance might begin within five years or so, he said.

Given public sensitivities to industrial tinkering in genetically modified foods, heat-resistant chickens aren’t a foregone conclusion for chicken-and-egg producers even if they turn out to be possible.

University professors don’t always take a shine to grotesque journalistic hyperbole like, for example, “superchicken.” It doesn't sound like a word Schmidt will be using anytime soon, but as he put it, “Nobody’s going to be offended by it -- least of all the chickens.”

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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