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Study shows how chickens keep their cool

15 March 2011

Its head looks like a turkey's, its body resembles a chicken's - now scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) can explain why one of the poultry world's most curious specimens has developed such a distinctive look.

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken. © Roslin Institute

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken.
© Roslin Institute

The findings could help poultry production in hot countries, including in the developing world, because chickens with naked necks are much better equipped to withstand the heat.

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken - once dubbed a Churkey or a Turken because of its hybrid appearance - has developed its defining feature because of a complex genetic mutation.

Researchers at The Roslin Institute, an Institute of BBSRC, at The University of Edinburgh found that a vitamin A-derived substance produced around the bird's neck enhanced the effects of the genetic mutation.

This causes a protein - BMP12 - to be produced, suppressing feather growth and causing the bird to have an outstanding bald neck.

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken. © Roslin Institute

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken.
© Roslin Institute

The discovery also has implications for understanding how birds - including vultures - evolved to have featherless necks due to their metabolism of vitamin A selectively in neck skin.

Transylvanian naked necks, which are thought to have originated from the north of Romania, have been around for hundreds of years and were introduced to Britain in the 1920s.

The research, published in the journal PLoS, was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Dr Denis Headon, who led the research at The Roslin Institute, said: "Not only does this help our understanding of developmental biology and give insight into how different breeds have evolved but it could have practical implications for helping poultry production in hot countries including those in the developing world."

Researchers analysed DNA samples from naked neck chickens in Mexico, France and Hungary to find the genetic mutation. Skin samples from embryonic chickens were also analysed using complex mathematical modelling to identify the genetic trigger.

Notes to editors

Photos of the Transylvanian naked neck chickens (credit The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, can be downloaded from www.mediafire.com/?dnfxw50lepb19.

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Tara Womersley, The University of Edinburgh Press and PR Office

tel: 0131 650 9836