Building a better chicken

High and low growth chickens and a cross between the two that are part of Paul Siegel's research since the 1950'sHerbert Hoover’s presidential campaign once promised a chicken in every pot, but Elizabeth Gilbert is taking that promise a step further — she wants to ensure it’s the most nutritionally balanced chicken in the pot.

An assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences, Gilbert is helping Virginia poultry producers maximize chicken production to get the most meat they can from their birds. Poultry was a top agricultural export for the commonwealth in 2013, exceeding $186 million.

Gilbert studies fat tissue development and epigenetic regulation of gene expression in chickens. Epigenetics is the gene activity not related to DNA. She is looking at the role of neuropeptides in fat deposition and how the dietary composition of fat, carbohydrate, and protein influences the accumulation of fat.

“Understanding factors regulating subcutaneous fatty connective tissue development may have profound implications for the broiler industry,” Gilbert said. “By providing information that can affect body composition, we can help increase the quality of the meat in the birds and boost profits.”

In order to study adipose tissue development, Gilbert uses the two lines of White Plymouth Rock chickens developed by Paul Siegel, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Animal and Poultry Sciences. In every generation since 1957, Siegel has bred the heaviest and lightest chickens within their respective lines, thus establishing high body weight and low body weight groups.

These lines of chickens have been in existence for more than 50 years and serve as a powerful genetic resource. The low body weight line contains some anorexics, and the chickens are relatively lean, whereas the high body weight line contains compulsive feeders that develop excess body fat at an early age.

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