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Study of Chickens May Help Understanding of Humans

Chickens and humans... on the surface, there do not appear to be many similarities. But at a news conference Wednesday, researchers said they believe that recent advances in the field of chicken genetics will help scientists solve human health problems.

If you were to go back through your family tree some 300 million years, you would see that you and and the chickens you may roast for dinner share a common ancestor.

It is this evolutionary link that has scientists excited about their increasing ability to understand a chicken's one billion DNA pairs, which is enabling scientists to learn from the genetic similarities between chickens and humans.

Researcher Chris Ponting, an expert in genome analysis at Oxford University in Britain, explains that the genetic overlap between chickens and humans represents the small fraction a human's genetic make-up, or genome, that has been preserved for hundreds of millions of years.

Mr. Ponting says 60 percent of human genes and chicken genes still bears some similarity, but the 2.5 percent of the human genome that still exactly matches the chicken genome must have been extremely important to human survival over the centuries.

"Among these is where we can now all look first when searching for DNA mutations linked to human disease," he explained.

Research on the chicken genome, such as the work published in the most recent issue of the journal Nature, also helps scientists better understand chicken development for agricultural purposes. Such gains could help farmers produce chickens that lay more eggs or provide more meat and less fat.

And genetic researcher Jerry Dodgson of Michigan State University says that part of the research also has implications for human beings.

"As genes are identified that contribute to fat deposition in broilers [chickens for roasting], we might look at the analogous human genes for influences on obesity," he noted.

He says similar research can be conducted on reproductive processes and disease resistance.

Recent outbreaks of bird flu have increased scientists' desire to learn about the chicken genome. Bird flu is believed to have passed from birds to humans and killed more than 30 people in Vietnam and Thailand this year.

Mr. Dodgson says studying various diseases in chickens might help researchers better understand related diseases in people.

"The genome sequence is expected to help us discover genes that enhance natural resistance to infection in birds and to better understand and develop new vaccine strategies," he added.

Mr. Dodgson notes that such advances require years of additional research, but he adds that understanding the chicken genome makes that such research possible.