Almost 250 million turkeys were grown in the U.S. this year, and a large number of them will be consumed over this Thanksgiving holiday. Before you begin to baste yours, take a moment to consider a recent example of how this noble bird has contributed to medical technology.
Last year researchers at Virginia Tech’s Avian Immunobiology Lab succeeded in sequencing the genome of the Wild Turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo, which consists of 80 chromosomes in comparison to the 46 in our diploid cells (in defense of humans, many of the avian chromosomes are “microchromosomes”). This was not the first, or even the second, bird species to have its genome sequenced – those honors go to the chicken and zebra finch.
What was special about the sequencing of the turkey genome, however, was the use of the next-generation sequencing technologies, Illumina GAII and Roche 454 pyrosequencing (see animation below). With these platforms the researchers were able to sequence the genome within a year at a cost of a little over $200,000, compared to the chicken genome sequencing which took multiple years and millions of dollars. According to the paper in PLoS Biology, “This genome project is a first where the majority of the production cost was invested in analysis and interpretation rather than generating sequence.”
In terms of applications, according to a New York Times article, the sequence information “may be useful in the continued breeding of turkeys for food. Finding which genes are connected to fertility could help the industry increase production by making genetically modified turkeys. Nutrient content might also be increased. Genetically modified food animals are highly controversial, but the turkey genome may also prove useful in medical research. Understanding the genetics of diseases in turkeys could help in research on human diseases.”
Something to consider when you bite into that turkey leg…
Animation about pyrosequencing:
P.S. If putting a turkey in the oven is not your thing, maybe you will appreciate putting one in the CT Scanner instead, as researchers in Hungary a few months ago: Computed Tomographical (CT) Anatomy of the Thoracoabdominal Cavity of the Male Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Full Text Article in PLoS Biology: Multi-platform next-generation sequencing of the domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo): genome assembly and analysis.
New York Times article: Researchers Map Most of Turkey’s Genome