Poultry Vitrification: Keeping the Flock Diverse
To safeguard genetic diversity in agriculture, scientists, farmers and livestock keepers preserve genetic material in the form of seeds, sperm and other reproductive materials.
For plants, Canada preserves its stocks through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Plant Gene Resources of Canada in Saskatoon, which in turn is connected to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. For animal genetic material, Canada has the Canadian Animal Genetic Resources Program, also located in Saskatoon.
With shifting environments and market demands, today’s popular farm animal breed or crop may not thrive tomorrow, so having plenty of genetic resources on the shelf is key to long-term success in providing a sustainable food supply.
Preserving Animal Germplasm
While seed diversity and conservation initiatives are well established in Canada and other countries around the world, the preservation of farm animal genetic material is still challenging, mainly because of the associated costs and technical difficulties of storing animal and poultry germplasm (sperm, embryo and gonads).
Mammalian genetic material can be stored at ultra-low temperatures in liquid nitrogen via a slow freezing process – a technique known as cryopreservation. However, poultry sperm preserved this way have lower ability to fertilize an egg cell after thawing.
AAFC researchers adapted a new low-temperature preservation technique, called vitrification, to store male and female poultry gonads (that is reproductive organs) in liquid nitrogen. Vitrification, unlike cryopreservation, is the rapid ultra-cooling of tissue where 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 Poultry Vitrification Program, under the direction of AAFC’s Dr. Carl Lessard, is now in the process of collecting material. The focus is on breeds of chicken not used in commercial poultry production, but this collection could extend to include turkey breeds.
"Heritage breeds represent an opportunity to have access to unique genes that are not present in current commercial lines," says Dr. Lessard. "These lines can also offer an opportunity for current commercial lines to increase disease resistance, stress tolerance, or even adapt to changing consumer demands in meat or egg qualities."
Regenerating poultry lines is a matter of surgically implanting warmed vitrified gonads into recipient birds. The gonads of the recipient are removed, and then the new gonads, from a desired line or breed, are swapped in. At maturity, the recipient bird will produce offspring of the desired breed.
AAFC researchers are asking farmers and hobbyists who raise heritage or commercial poultry breeds to donate fertilized eggs from their flock. This material will be used to build a poultry gonad bank, located in Saskatoon, which will protect the genetic diversity of the Canadian poultry stock.
"Those interested in participating in this program are invited to contact me to arrange shipping of fertilized eggs to our facility," says Dr. Lessard. The program will cover the cost associated with shipping these eggs.
For more information or to set up an interview:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
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