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Sequencing a turkey’s genome

Photo: John Benson via Flickr CC

Health Talk took a break from Thanksgiving meal preparation yesterday to talk turkey with University of Minnesota expert Kent Reed, Ph.D. Reed is an evolutionary biologist and animal geneticist with the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He’s helped sequence upwards of 90 percent of the turkey genome with the Turkey Genome Mapping Project and is now working to characterize the turkey genome’s precursor: the turkey transcriptome. Here’s what he has to say about your holiday centerpiece:

Health Talk: Where did the turkey and its genome first start?

Reed: Earliest domestication of the turkey was likely by indigenous peoples in southwest North America. Most domesticated turkeys today, however, are linked to the Spaniards who brought turkeys from Mexico to Europe where they were domesticated and then later returned to America. That means today’s domestic turkeys are probably most closely related to the subspecies that existed in Mexico. Jump ahead a few hundred years and Minnesota is one of the nation’s top turkey-producing states.

Health Talk: Why sequence the turkey genome?

Reed: We want to know what’s happened in the turkey genome during the process of domestication for faster growth and more meat. How is the domestic bird different from the wild bird and how can we use that information to raise birds that are healthy and grow well? Ultimately, we want to better understand turkey health, so when we take the turkey genome and turn it into a Thanksgiving dinner, it’s done in a way that promotes everyone’s health.

HT: What kinds of genes are you looking for? Reed: We’re looking for genes that influence muscle development and the immune system. It also turns out domesticated turkeys are really sensitive to mycotoxins, or chemical products produced by fungi that colonize crops. Wild turkeys are less sensitive. So we’re also investigating the genes responsible for the health problems caused by mycotoxins in collaboration with Utah State University. We want to know how domestic turkeys lost the ability to process fungal toxins in their foods and if there’s a way to restore that natural ability again.

Kent Reed, Ph.D., an expert with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, is sequencing the turkey genome. Photo courtesy Sue Kirchoff

HT: Genome in-hand, is the turkey’s health forecast optimistic?

Reed: We haven’t seen too many genome-related changes yet, but we will. Historically, much of the turkey industry has been focused around “How do you grow more turkeys, faster, bigger?” but there are problems related to fast growth and big birds. It’s not just about making more meat. It’s about the bird’s overall health. We never know the next pathogen on the horizon. Having access to the turkey genome gives us tools to address future challenges.

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