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Harvesting the Turkey Genome
By Kate Ruder

Turkeys are much plumper today than 50 years ago, thanks to genetics.

Turkey researchers and breeders have a little something to be thankful for this holiday season. The first map of the turkey genome has been published.

The researchers mapped roughly 100 genes in the turkey genome (the turkey genome probably has about 25,000 genes). Scientists call it a “first-generation map” that will be improved as more genes are found. They also readily concede that the accomplishment is, well, modest.

“It's not an earth-shattering result,” admits David Harry, who led the research at Nicholas Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California.

But the scientists have confirmed, as suspected, that the turkey and chicken genomes share many similarities, and they hope that the complete genome of the chicken, which is expected in March 2004, will help them discover more turkey genes.

And the finding satisfies some idle questions from turkey eaters. “There's been plenty of curiosity from the lay public,” says Harry, who notes that most people don't realize that turkeys even have genomes.

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The map could help researchers find genes to breed a better turkey, such as genes resistant to bacterial and viral infection and genes that contribute to plumper turkeys and juicer meat.

Researchers at Nicholas led the study, which included scientists from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Other agricultural animals such as cow, pig and chicken have comprehensive maps of their genomes. Yet the turkey has always been the poor cousin of the chicken in the world of science.

Nevertheless, turkeys are still the bird of choice on Thanksgiving. Americans gobbled down 690 million pounds of turkey last Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation.

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council says that sales of chicken “go to pieces” this time of year.

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Harry, D.E. et al. A First-Generation Map of the Turkey Genome. Genome 46, 914-924 (October 2003).


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