Iowa State Takes Steps to Preserve World's Oldest Chicken Lines

November 16th, 2005

Tornadoes touched down twice in Ames in 2005. Although no serious damage was done to research facilities at Iowa State University, there is always the possibility the next natural disaster could have an impact.

The Iowa State University Poultry Research Center is home to the world's oldest inbred research lines of chickens. With the potential that something could happen to wipe them out, germplasm was recently submitted to a U.S. Department of Agriculture center so the lines are protected.

Susan Lamont is a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and a professor of animal science. "The chicken lines at Iowa State came from multiple origins, with the oldest dating back to 1925," Lamont said. "Others began in the mid-1950s with the importation of lines originating in Egypt and Spain."

Lamont joined the Iowa State animal science faculty in 1983, taking over responsibility for the chicken lines from Arne Nordskog. He led the poultry breeding program for more than 40 years.

This fall, more than 300 poultry semen samples from individual roosters at Iowa State's poultry research center were collected and transferred to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. The center, in Fort Collins, Colo., conserves genetic resources of animals and crops that are deemed important to U.S. agriculture and landscapes. Genetic resources at the national center are preserved using state-of-the-art cryogenic technology.

Lamont said the national center invites researchers to submit germplasm and she responded. "It's a small safeguard against natural disasters," she said.

The center doesn't routinely share the germplasm with researchers because of the limited collection, but ensures it will be available if other sources are somehow lost or destroyed.

"Iowa State's inbred poultry lines are really a unique and valuable resource," Lamont said. "Some represent lines that are quite different from what's used in commercial production today. That makes them a powerful tool for genetics research."

The chicken genome sequence was made available to researchers for the first time last year. Sequencing a genome helps researchers discover the role each gene within an organism plays. "Now we have the chance to study specific genes with existing lines, as we look at such things as growth traits, skeletal strength, disease resistance and biodiversity," she said.

Lamont has used the U.S. Poultry Genome map to research and identify genes that help make chickens resistant to Salmonella infection. "There is a great deal of interest in using genetic information to improve food safety," she said.

Does Lamont see a role for the Iowa State chicken lines in the battle against avian influenza? "We have not looked at these lines' response to avian influenza, but we do know they have different responses to another viral disease. So this might be a good subject for research using our inbred chicken lines," she said.


Susan Lamont, Animal Science, (515) 294-4100,
Susan Thompson, Communications Service, (515) 294-0705,