VT Chickens Help Hatch Evolutionary Discovery

Lizzy Schultz

paulsiegel The genetic lines of chickens raised at Virginia Tech University were a critical component in a remarkable research study which has proven that evolution happens 15 times faster than has been previously believed.

The study was published recently in Biology Letters, a journal of Royal Society Publishing, and involved Virginia Tech researchers, as well as researchers from the University of York, Oxford University, the University of Sydney, Uppsala University, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

“This experiment and many others involving everything from animal appetites to genetics could never have been done without the pedigree lines here at Virginia Tech,” said Paul Siegel,co-author of the paper and distinguished professor emeritus of animal and poultry sciences in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “This experiment was also an excellent example of international collaboration between six countries that was necessary for the success of the study.”

The discovery utilized DNA from lines of White Plymouth Rock chickens that were developed by Siegel over more than 50 years. He produced two distinct lines of chickens from the common founder population, selecting for both high- and low-body weight. Today, the high-weight genetic line is an average of 12 times larger than the low-growth counterpart by the time the chickens reach the eight-week selection age.

In the latest experiment, researchers analyzed blood samples of chickens of the same generation. They used the most distantly related maternal lines to reconstruct how DNA, specifically the mitochondrial DNA, passes from mothers to daughters.

“Our observations reveal that evolution is always moving quickly, but we tend not to see it because we typically measure it over longer time periods,” said Greger Larson, Oxford University professor of archaelogy in a news release. “Our study shows that evolution can move much faster in the short term than we had believed from fossil-based estimates.”

The experiment also determined that mitochondria are not solely passed down from maternal lines, which has long been thought of as the characteristic of mitochondrial genomes.

This is not the first time the scientific community has benefited from the research done on Virginia Tech’s high- and low-body weight chicken lines. A 2010 article in the scientific journal “Nature” highlighted a breakthrough in genetic studies of animal domestication, thanks in part to these two lines.

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