‘Scientists aim for chicken coup.’ BBC News Online

Cluck, cluck!

"Right now we're building our interstate on the highway map of the chicken genome." Dr Hans Cheng, US Department of Agriculture Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory, Michigan, US

‘Scientists have produced a rough map of the chicken genome, the complete set of biochemical instructions that give life to the bird. The map contains some 2,000 important markers that will guide researchers when they come to decode all of the animal's genes in the next few years. A completed genome would aid the creation of larger, disease-free animals and the development of "super eggs" which have an enhanced nutritional content. The map is the work of researchers in the US, UK and the Netherlands and draws on the efforts of a large number of scientists worldwide engaged in the Poultry Genome Project…So far, sequencing dollars have been directed at the human genome and those animals that are used as model organisms, such as the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and the small soil worm (Caenorhabditis elegans). But the importance of the chicken in the human diet means that the sequencing robots and computers are bound to turn their attention to the bird sooner rather than later. Scientists believe the knowledge gained would have major health and cash benefits. "Knowing all the bird's genes would help us produce healthier chickens that grow faster and eat less feed," Dr Cheng told BBC News Online. "And from the point of view of the producers, a healthier chicken needs fewer antibiotics in its feed - so there is an economic benefit as well."…Some scientists even believe eggs could be used to deliver drugs or make industrial products such as plastics. It is thought the chicken has about 50-80,000 genes arranged on 39 pairs of chromosomes.  Many of these genes are shared with humans - probably more than 80%.’ BBC News

‘The first detailed analysis of the chicken genome has identified a chicken counterpart to an important human immune system protein, revised scientists' assessment of the chicken's sense of smell, and suggested that the chicken, long used to study gene activity in the earliest stages of life, may provide a good model for studying changes in DNA linked to aging and death. Other findings from the analysis, reported in the 9 December issue of the journal Nature by the International Chicken Genome Sequencing Consortium, include the identification of genes that affirm the chicken's value as a model for study of developmental disorders like cleft palate and diseases like muscular dystrophy. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute contributed sequence and analysis to the Consortium. Researchers completed and made available the genetic sequence of the red jungle fowl - a wild ancestor of the domestic chicken whose scientific name is Gallus gallus - in March 2004. The genome provides several firsts: it is the first bird, the first agricultural animal, and the first descendant of the dinosaurs to have its genome sequenced. The International Chicken Genome Sequencing Consortium is directed by Richard K Wilson, PhD, Director of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Wilson and other project leaders predict that the chicken genome will help biomedical researchers seeking to better understand the human genome in order to improve diagnosis and treatment of human disease.’ Wellcome Trust, 2004

Edible dinosaurs

Edible dinosaurs; breathing white meat

factories - spreading vestiges of glory -

like men raising arms at the cliff edge;

uselessly remembering being an angel.

Chicken Resemblance

As we get older, the resemblance to chickens

seems more obvious; especially if weight loss

contributes – it’s all in the neck, skin chemistry -

gravity calling flesh to earth, welcoming epidermis

breakdown; composting, with honour, her flags

always green. It’s the disappearance of cheeks -

which are always going from the cherubic DNA

of children onward, but dominated by rehearsing

skull; skulk into anorexic nothing, shrunken,

sucked by the pressure of tiring dark tunnel -

imploding to that black egg among the stars -

first molecules who do not care whether man

or chicken, leaf or berry, dust particle, dandruff,

beauty queen’s snot. It’s that sleepy nervousness

about something over the shoulder - somewhere,

having to keep watch. Chicken wings are snacks,

as nibbling our old boney shoulder blades

wouldn’t yield much meat; how vulnerable,

pitiful - in need of protection, veneration,

these enduring stubs, bony protuberances

of domestication - what homage to dreams

surrendered; what bold and moving prints

of Evolution on a delicious Sunday chicken,

on an old man’s fragile, angelic fossil back.

‘Another paper appearing in 9 December issue of Nature found relatively little genetic difference between Gallus gallus and domesticated chicken breeds, highlighting the genome's potential to aid agricultural scientists trying to improve the chicken as a nutritional resource and to limit the spread of avian flu viruses. Scientists found the chicken genome has about the same number of genes as the human genome: 20 000-23 000 compared with the human genome's estimated 20 000-25 000 genes. However, those genes are contained in only 1 billion DNA base pairs, a mere third of human DNA's 2.8 billion base pairs. A part of what’s missing is some of the 'junk' DNA - the recognisable repetitive content of the chicken genome is only about 10 per cent as compared to about 50 per cent for humans. Scientists identified a chicken gene for interleukin 26, an important immune response protein only previously seen in humans. Researchers hope that further study of the chicken's immune system will lead to the development of better ways to control the spread of viruses, such as the bird flu in Asia. These viruses sometimes jump across species and infect humans. The chicken has traditionally been regarded as having a poor sense of smell, but an assessment of the number of smell receptors in the chicken genome has scientists reconsidering. The total number of receptors doesn't put the chicken in the same league as olfactory champions like the dog or the mouse, but it may place the chicken's sense of smell on a par with the human sense of smell. However, a search for taste receptors turned up relatively few results, suggesting chickens have a poor sense of taste. Based on their initial look at the chicken genome, scientists have suggested that they may need to alter the proposed starting point for as many as 2000 human genes. Their analysis showed that chickens and humans share about 60 per cent of their genes, as opposed to the approximately 88 per cent shared by humans and rodents. The International Chicken Genome Sequencing Consortium includes scientists from China, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.’ Wellcome Trust, 2004

‘Chickens are still very much in evidence at Roslin [where Dolly the sheep was cloned], with cut-price eggs a weekly bonus.’ Colin Tudge, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

DNA more apparent in the roasting dish

Plucked, stunted dinosaur angel in a steel coffin;

DNA much more apparent in the roasting dish -

a better hell for many, though you did mooch

a yard, so I salve my conscience with money.

Did they culture the cluck to soothe themselves,

all these nights of dark domestication, enforced

adaptation - have they tuned the notes of suffering

to this low, lullaby music that will make a man sit

awhile in the coup, becoming entranced, drugged

with resignation - even to accepting loss of flight.

‘A flock of designer hens, genetically modified with human genes to lay eggs capable of producing drugs that fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases, has been created by British scientists. Researchers at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, which created pioneering GM animal "drug factories" such as Tracy the sheep as well as Dolly the clone, have bred a 500-strong flock of ISA Browns... Because they make proteins used as drugs in the whites of their eggs, they offer the prospect of mass-producing at a fraction of the price drugs that cost thousands of pounds a year per patient. This marks an important advance in the use of farm animals for the production of pharmaceuticals. Existing methods for producing protein drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies used to treat cancer and arthritis, are expensive and time-consuming… The GM chickens are reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr Helen Sang and colleagues in the Roslin Institute and the companies Oxford Biomedica, which specialises in gene therapy, and Viragen, which is commercialising the technology. They describe how they have produced transgenic hens by using a particular virus — an equine infectious anemia lentivirus — to insert the genes for desired pharmaceutical proteins into the hen's gene for ovalbumin. This is a protein that makes up 54 per cent of egg whites, around 2.2 grams for each egg — a massive amount by the standards of biotechnology. They inserted the human genes into chicken embryonic stem cells, then blended those cells with those of a normal chicken embryo to create a chimera, a blend of GM and normal cells. Crucially, the cells in the oviduct (which lays eggs) consisted of GM cells and so passed on the implanted gene so the egg could make the drug protein. The working proteins in these hens included miR24, a monoclonal antibody with potential for treating malignant melanoma, and human interferon b-1a, an antiviral drug. Just as important, the genes were passed on to the next generation. Although there have been attempts to make protein drugs in the milk of sheep, goats, cattle and rabbits, the team believes that the conversion of chickens into "bioreactors" offers many advantages. They produce more quickly and are much cheaper to look after. "This is potentially a very powerful new way to produce specialised drugs," said Dr Karen Jervis of Viragen Scotland, which worked with the Roslin team. "We have bred five generations of chickens so far and they all keep producing high concentrations of pharmaceuticals." Andrew Wood, of Oxford BioMedica, whose researchers collaborated on the project, said: "This could lead to treatments for Parkinson's disease, diabetes and a range of cancers”.’ Daily Telegraph, 2007

‘Human chromosome 12 contains more than 1,400 coding genes and 487 loci that have been directly implicated in human disease. The q arm of chromosome 12 contains one of the largest blocks of linkage disequilibrium found in the human genome. Here we present the finished sequence of human chromosome 12, which has been finished to high quality and spans approximately 132 megabases, representing 4.5% of the human genome. Alignment of the human chromosome 12 sequence across vertebrates reveals the origin of individual segments in chicken, and a unique history of rearrangement through rodent and primate lineages. The rate of base substitutions in recent evolutionary history shows an overall slowing in hominids compared with primates and rodents.’ Nature, 2006

French Chickens in the Yard

‘…the mother-hen has almost lost by disuse the power of flight.’ Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

The molten rooster mooches in the burning dust,

testing grassless earth for temperature

with dragon feet;

permanently outraged -

sticking out his goitred chin,

puffing copper chest feathers

where a small dazzling sun zips;

with a Glasgow swagger,

swanking lordly down the yard,

twitching at the phantoms

birds are forced to keep an eye on,

one eye at a time -

Oooooohhh, eoooohhh’, he moans, lowly

ecstatic, knowing he will climactically crow

to Heaven at last, exploding

into what humans say is, ‘Cock-a-doodle-do’,

the cheek, as if he had no dignity,

was not chief among his gossiping queens,

could not pose right now for Gainsborough,

thus, heroic -

but instead is left spearing pinhead pieces

of nothing for something to do,

pretending to swallow them.

Massed at the wire,

satellite sunflowers rudely stare,

wiring heat to protesting earth,

balding her bleached green summer hair;

the water bowl is as bright as the Moon,

cools hissing brass wings just a moment –

but the sky - he hardly dares look again,

to dive into that cool blue…

his wives have learned better;

never break your heart

raising your head to the impossible,

and they fill their days well enough

with this and that in the yard –

only a gunshot, orange fox slink,

catches them dreaming of proper wings,


for the hell of it,

the melting rooster launches,

uncertain as a bumble-bee -

just makes the coup roof,

sky still as far away as Heaven,

loathing his own red crown

because this king’s wings won’t fly,

all of them cripples,

understanding Icarus

as well as us -

they have gold and brown and black angels.

I go to see the hens are tucked up;

the boiling sunflowers simmer

in a golden haze, still untouchable

by dusk;

but flushed sky pales at last,

feverish evening

soothing into silver night -

I hear those most maternal sounds,

mothering without words or hands;

unwinding haywire clockwork chicks

creeping to nest and breast,

sleepy now, maximally fluffed -

understanding this language,

I stumble indoors to cluck

over my baby.

Every time you eat a battery chicken

‘Many of the chicken’s genes are shared with humans - probably more than 80%.’ BBC News

Every time you eat a battery chicken,

a little patch of your soul is polluted -

the place marked with a single feather,

like the Stars and Stripes on the Moon –

when there are enough feathers,

a whole bird will be animated -

that will break loose inside you,

troubling you forever, fluttering

wings beating in your heart, stuttering -

like a white Bird of Paradise at a window.

Until you die -

and the bird is free,

flying ecsatically

from your ribs.

‘The male satin bowerbird builds a woven plat/ form ten feet square,/ supporting an avenue of woven sticks, walls a foot high arching over/the floor, decked with bits of coloured shell, fruit, seedheads. He shows/ a preference for objects green and blue, for blossoms uncommon in/ the local environment. Perishable decorations such as flowers are re/ placed. Some bowers are painted either blue, black, or green, using a wad of bark as a paintbrush and crushed fruit, charcoal, or blue laun/ dry powder as paint…Variant objects displayed in bowers: moss, beetle heads, acorns, cellophane, brown stones, blue glass, red leaves, poker chips (like colors stacked), red fruits, blue feathers, black and orange bracket fungi, butterflies.’ Alison Hawthorne Deming, Essays in Intelligence: Four

The Male Satin Bowerbird is an Artist

The male Satin Bowerbird is an artist –

all the rest went chasing bugs, worms,

while his DNA mutated into avian Van Gogh;

his colours, motivation, connection, glorious -

quietly manipulating found objects; shiny

green and black patent beetle heads, starry

moss, glossy brown-eye nuts, blue soap, fire-

leaves, feathers of his most admired brothers -

incorporating bacteria’s colourful fungal art -

star-fruit, flowers, Celtic shells, bright plastics;

butterflies whose whole body is given to being art -

except the ugly black sugar-sucking hinge necessary

to keep the thing on earth, not fluttering straight back

up to heaven; as lark and swallow have silver strings

like a kite, to conduit song, conduct original music

crackling still among clouds and blue - in heaven.

His art and life are one; true artist bird compelled,

building his pieces for anyone who sees – himself,

because he must - compulsively driven as Keats,

Mozart, to make this thing, allow this thing to be.

‘Lethal global flu epidemics tend to occur three or four times a century. Scientists believe a new one may be imminent and is likely to be triggered by bird flu. The latest H5N1 strain has killed millions of birds and scores of humans since 2003.  Many experts fear the virus will soon mutate into a strain more easily spread among humans. The primary concern is if people already suffering from a human strain of flu contract the avian virus. The viruses could join to create a previously unknown version not yet recognised by human immune systems. The new variant is likely to spread quickly and easily, triggering a deadly pandemic. Experts predict it could kill more than 2m people and infect millions more.’ BBC, 2006

We do not know how to be afraid of birds

We do not know how to be afraid of birds,

but will learn fast, like the silver star-high

singing of the ultra-soprano mosquito

is not heavenly - even the white swan

will be feared; we thought an ancient angel wire

connected us, our white wings would be like his,

but thus will he bring disease - in shared genes,

wicked genetic incubators that understand still

one another, will cultivate unconsciously

as viruses do; Dalek biology, replication -

destruction whose beauty is so negative, dark,

as to implode into a star mutation, black hole.

In Holyrood Park the kingly Scottish swans

are bemused; hungry they pose, wondering

where all the wingless peasants went, bread -

their necks are all white question marks today,

children are asking in cars why they don’t stop

now, by that imperious flock of water angels -

while the perplexed parents are wrestling with how

you should be; maybe attempting simple principles

of shared evolution, possible virus mutation -

or just wondering if this is right, to teach fear

of gorgeous swans, white emblems of bird nobility

embroidered in dazzling white silks, tulle; orange

and kohl flashes, on the cultured historic pond -

point out similarities to reptiles and dragons; us.

EGG (1)

‘…egg production as a whole has several peculiar and counterintuitive features - which again most people, including most biologists, seem to get wrong…the mammalian egg at the time of ovulation is a more peculiar structure than most people - even most biologists - appreciate. It has a kind of ‘shell’ known as the zona pellucida, which has various functions… the zona pellucida of a mammalian egg is not directly comparable with the shell of a bird’s egg but in some ways the two are functionally similar. Thus early development in a mammal takes place within the zona. Indeed, when the mammalian embryo reaches the blasotcyst stage it has to ‘hatch’ from the zona - ‘hatch’ is the technical term - before it can implant in the body wall of the uterus. Again, the idea that mammalian embryos must indeed hatch is alien even to most biologists. Elementary textbooks seem to contain no reference to it. Yet hatching is a key event in mammalian development. It is another nice reminder of the evolutionary past of mammals - for we are the descendents of reptiles, just as birds are…People think of birds hatching, but not mammals…How, though, does the single, intital cell - the fertilised egg - multiply to form an entire, multicellular organism, like a sheep or a human being? …Alongside German-based cytology [cell biology] grew German-based embryology…In 1827 in De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi  (On the Origin of the Mammalian and Human Ovuum) [Karl Ernst von] Baer (1792-1876) desribed how all mammals, including human beings, develop from eggs. He showed, too, how the different organs form as the embryo develops - in which order they arise, and from which tissues. He also established comparative embryology – revealing the similarities and differences in the development of different creatures…It is precisely because amphibians externalize their reproduction so flagrantly and vulnerably that they are still living in ponds. Mammals are as successful as they are largely because they keep their embryos so snugly cocooned, deep and moist within their own bodies…Mammal eggs are tiny: at least, they’re are huge compared with most other mammalian cells but minute against those of frogs, like ping-pong balls against pumpkins... Worse: the eggs of mammals (apart from those of duck-billed platypuses and echidnas) never see the light of day.’ Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001


The egg is an equation

manifest; an explanation

you can cup, see, weigh,

feel in your own palm -

simple, pleasing physical model

of the writing on the blackboard;

symbolic question and answer both,

living in a seamless closed bowl –

before the egg, the bird,

inside the egg, the bird;

a diagram of continuity,

a philosopher’s dream.

How many reptiles died then,

to make one warming feather -

before air would accept strangers;

to prove which of them came first.

The seed is a cold egg dreaming -

planted in the world’s earth breast,

warmed into spindly hatching children,

greened into light by incubating spring.

The womb is an egg

we could not let go -

mutated softer, softer into intimate skin.

Still I am plugged to my growing child,

though he runs now wild

in emerald autumn fields,

dancing with incandescent leaf spirits

to demented wind music children still

hear, tuned instinctively, energetic enough,

still close to such movement of red sparks -

always existing in the perfect egg of my love,

where my anxious mother-eyes no longer see,

I feel the ghost cord pulling,

stronger than the blood wire,

for it will never die,

nor wither as a stem.

The Earth is an egg,

incubated by Sun -

from our old shell of soil

and air, water membrane -

we have broken out,

into light, and dark.

‘SUBTLE: “Why, what have you observ’d, sir, in our art,/ Seems so impossible? SURLY: “But your whole work, no more/ That you should hatch gold in a furnace, sir,/ As they do eggs in Egypt!/ ” SUBTLE: “Sir, do you/ Believe that eggs are hatch’d so?” SURLY: “If I should?” SUBTLE: “Why, I think that the greater miracle. / No egg but differs from a chicken more/ Than metals in themselves.” SURLY: “That cannot be./ The egg’s ordained by nature to that end,/ And is a chicken in potentia. SUBTLE: “The same we say of lead and other metals,/  Which would be gold, if they had time. MAMMON: “And that/Our art doth further.” SUBTLE: “Ay, for ‘twere absurd/To think that nature in the earth bred gold/ Perfect in the instant: something went before./ There must be remote matter.”…. SUBTLE: “…Nor can this remote matter suddenly/ Progress so from extreme unto extreme,/ As to grow gold, and leap oe’er all the means./ Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then/ Proceeds she to the perfect”.’ Ben Jonson, 1572-1637, The Alchemist

‘Origin of the Earth and Life - Scientific estimates place the origin of the Universe at between 10 and 20 billion years ago. The theory currently with the most acceptance is the "big bang theory" Big Bang Theory, the idea that all matter in the Universe existed in a cosmic egg (smaller than the size of a modern hydrogen atom) that exploded, forming the Universe. Recent discoveries from the Space Telescope and other devices suggest this theory may need some modification.’ M.J. Farabee, Online Biology Book, 2001 

Two Double Yolks

My wee boy sailing the kitchen

in a giant flapping white apron,

helped with an omelette -

choosing, cracking eggs,

(without us mentioning Humpty Dumpty

once because it’s just too damn sad, tragic) -

suddenly, there was a double yolk!

Two sludgy, wobbly, membraned

twins, almost with a yellow smile,

so simple and round like the Sun –

‘Look’, I cried out - ‘that’s amazing!

I haven’t seen one since I was a child,

that’s really lucky, you know!’

Then he cracked another egg,

and lo and behold -

a second double yolk!

Mirrored mini-suns snugly sunk

in the shiny, gelatinous ooze -

from the same half dozen -

some genetically auspicious

fertile hen somewhere, trying

to repopulate Earth herself -

or sending a message, via embryos,

we do not know how to understand -

‘Now if that’s not an occurrence

worthy of a story, with makings

of omen, ingredients of myth;

portent, augur, then what is…’

‘But I’m hungry, mummy -

just hurry, cook them all up.’


Realising What an Egg Is

I remember the very moment I realised what an egg was -

Nearly heaved my scrambled egg up on the Pyrex plate,

The thought - ‘Probably nobody will notice the difference’ - gave slight pause,

Then a cheeping parade of fluffy yellow thoughts and their digestive fate,

But the horror once unleashed could not be undone,

A chicken child, no, chicken baby, no even worse, an embryo,

Grrrrrooooooooss! I’d been eating the unborn, like Caligula eating his son,

Not to mention something that came out of a chicken’s bum; oh, no!

Even omelettes with tomato eyes, mushroom noses, suddenly didn’t seem much fun -

Made from sealed up babies that should still be tucked under their mummy’s tum;

Bits of ox tail swimming in brown soup, sandwich packed with sliced up tongue,

Then an embryo on a plate first thing for breakfast - cheers, mum!

Stamping a lion on the shell doesn’t make it OK,

Civilised behaviour from an animal lover like me,

I even thought one day God might make me pay -

Maybe if I hid it under the toast He wouldn’t see -

No wonder boiled eggs had always made me feel queasy,

White of egg seemed like something from your nose during a cold;

The burst of the yolk had something pusular, even sleezy,

Until mum’s cunning conversion into soufflé, meringues, mousse in a mould.

From that moment on I could only regard them with suspicion,

A barbarian dish, abomination, the stuff of nightmare -

Especially when someone told me at school, (a horrid girl who looked like a Titian),

You sometimes found half formed eyes, beaks, soggy feathers, but she didn’t care.

And now I can just about manage an egg cooked solidly, mercilessly fried,

But runny yolk makes me boke - still makes me shiver -

I remind myself it’s not quite as bad as they’re not fertilised,

But there was absolutely no return when I realised about liver.

Famous Chickens – Chicken Licken, Henny Penny, the leads in Chicken Run, Chicken Little.





Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Zoo
        Puffer Fish
        Also, Zebrafish
        Tyrannosaurus Rex
    Gene Garden
    Earth Poems

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