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Conserving Valuable Canadian Poultry Genetics - You can Help

Poultry genetics: What's at risk?

Conserving the diversity of Canada's poultry genetic resources is essential for the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of our poultry industry.

Industrialized poultry production has traditionally focused on developing commercial breeds and lines with excellent growth and productivity characteristics - more meat and eggs on less feed. This led to industry's reliance on a relatively small number of commercial lines with unknown genetic diversity.

Heritage poultry breeds (that is, breeds that existed prior to the 1950s) represent a rich storehouse of genes for traits like disease resistance, stress tolerance, unique egg and meat flavour profiles and increased robustness. However, according to Rare Breeds Canada, many heritage breeds are rare and threatened with extinction.

Until recently, the only way to preserve these heritage breeds was by keeping live flocks. Since the cost of keeping live flock is becoming increasingly prohibitive for most Canadian research institutions, our poultry producers and hobbyist are left with the burden of conserving living heritage poultry. Raising small flocks could lead to inbreeding, lost genetic diversity and increased health problems. And trying to maintain multiple breeds on a single farm can jeopardize genetic purity.

The risk is clear. Without a viable solution, the Canadian poultry industry could lose a significant portion of its genetic diversity.

One solution: Vitrification

While raising live birds cannot be abandoned altogether, Canada needs a back-up system to prevent the loss of future potential and ensure that heritage breeds contribute to modern poultry production. For mammalian species, that system is cryopreservation: a slow freezing process for storing germplasm (sperm, embryos or reproductive tissues) at ultra-low temperature in liquid nitrogen (-196°C).

Unfortunately, thawed cryopreserved poultry sperm has a very low success rate in fertilizing eggs.

A breakthrough in technology

A research team at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Agassiz, British Columbia successfully adapted a new low-temperature preservation technique, vitrification, to store male and female poultry gonads (that is, reproductive organs) in liquid nitrogen.

Unlike cryopreservation, vitrification is a process of rapid ultra-cooling of tissue - the tissue is not technically frozen (no ice crystal formation) but rather maintained in a glass-like or vitreous state at ultra-low temperature. The application of this technique in poultry was perfected using several chicken and quail breeds.

Regenerating poultry lines is a matter of surgically implanting thawed vitrified gonads into recipient birds. The recipients, regardless of their own genetic background, go on to produce progeny of the desired breed.

Poultry vitrification program in Saskatoon

The vitrification expertise has been transferred to the Canadian Animal Genetic Resources program (CAGR) under Dr. Carl Lessard's direction. CAGR, located at the AAFC Saskatoon Research Centre, is focused at:

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