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Transylvanian chicken -- looking weird but for good reasons

The Transylvanian naked neck chickens literally have no feathers around the neck, a feature that earns them the nicknames "churkey" or "turken" for their chicken-turkey hybrid look. Now scientists at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute have discovered how this bizarre appearance might have come about.

The naked neck chicken is thought to have arisen from northern Romania hundreds of years ago. The enquiry into the genetic basis of the phenotype has pinpointed a complex mutation as the difference. Enhanced by a vitamin-A derivative, a protein named BMP-12 is made and it blocks the growth of feathers on the neck, a region that appeared to be sensitive to the protein. Insights into the mutation could help address questions concerning the evolution and development of birds.

Interestingly, unlike the majority of mutations, the one that leads to the loss of feather may have been benefiting its possessors. The bald-necked chickens deal with heat better than their wildtype counterparts, and therefore managed to stand firm in the face of natural selection. According to Dr Denis Headon, who led the research, this advantage may have important economical implications as warmer countries will be looking to keep the cost of poultry industry low while attempting to increase the production. Transylvanian chicken's ability to tolerate heat would make it a favourable target.

The research, published in the journal PLoS, was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Dong Liu

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