When many Americans see that roasted turkey on Thanksgiving, it may appear as if the bird has already reached perfection. But genomic scientists are searching for ways to improve the domesticated turkey so that it grows faster, produces better quality meat, and can resist farmyard afflictions.
The turkey genome project, which began in 2008 and is headed by the University of Minnesota and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, is putting together its final assembly of A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s, and is already developing tools that will allow livestock breeders to select better birds. “With the genome sequence, we are able to measure traits that we can’t easily measure in a farm setting,” says Julie Long, a research physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, and a member of the turkey genome project. For example, disease resistance and the efficiency with which a bird turns its food into muscle are difficult traits to measure. “It’s pretty easy to tell which birds are growing bigger and faster,” says Long, “but there are other traits that we can’t really measure.” And that’s where the turkey genome comes in.
Long and her collaborators are developing a DNA microarrary of thousands of positions in the turkey genome that are known to vary from bird to bird. Turkey breeders will be able to use this DNA microarray to determine which of the animals have exactly the right genetic makeup for breeding.