Scientists Develop Surrogate Hen to Protect Rare Breeds

Scots Dumpy. Burmese Bantam. Cream Legbar. A chicken enthusiast might be able to identify these rare breeds, but not many people realize they could soon face extinction if people don’t intervene. Fortunately, this is where the scientists at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute come in.

In an innovative plan to preserve rare chicken breeds for future generations, Roslin scientists have dreamed up (and effectively tested) a new way to produce chickens: mutagenizing them. But what exactly does that mean? It means that they’ve created a genetically-modified chicken which can act as a “surrogate mother” for other hens, without actually being able to lay eggs that are biologically her own.

At an AAAS conference in Boston, study leader Mike Mcgrew reportedly referred to these surrogate hens as “the first step in saving and protecting rare poultry breeds from loss.” This surrogacy technique would enable genetically modified chickens to lay eggs from any rare breed, thus ensuring the diversity of the chicken genome for the foreseeable future.

As for the science itself, the surrogate hens are developed through a process that deletes the DDX4 gene, which is required for reproduction. The next revolutionary step will be for scientists to “transplant follicles from rare birds into the surrogate,” which would enable a hen to lay multiple eggs from “entirely different” chicken breeds. Although this technique is complex, scientists believe it will allow them to create a “gene bank” of chicken breeds because follicles can be frozen more effectively than eggs.

So forget about the age-old question: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this gene-warping world, frankly, quite anything is possible.