The current housings systems in the poultry industry increase the spread of diseases by housing large flocks of chickens on sand. These circumstances require a robust laying hen. Selection for a recently discovered immune characteristic is a potential strategy to improve general disease resistance in laying hens and thus to breed for a more robust chicken, conclude researchers of Wageningen University in PLOS ONE and Poultry Science. In addition, selection for this immune characteristic has minimal negative consequences on production, but surprisingly might have an effect on eggshell color.
In 2012, housing of chicken in individual cages was banned in the EU, because of welfare issues. Nowadays, chickens are group housed on sand with space to move around freely. However, this new system also brings new challenges to keeping poultry: in this new system chickens get more easily infected through sick flock mates, or through the dirtier environment. Preventing or treating these infections is becoming more difficult, due to stringent legislations and limitations set on the use of antibiotics. There is an increased need for a robust laying hen: a chicken that maintains egg production and health, under varying and challenging environments. Breeding for improved general disease resistance could be that strategy to get this robust chicken.
Antibodies are proteins present in sick animals that attack the disease causing the sickness. These antibodies are only produced after the animal becomes diseased. However, natural antibodies (NAb) are antibodies in healthy animals without presence of a disease. NAb were only discovered relatively recently in livestock animals. These antibodies prevent and combat diseases upon entry by sticking to them. In this way NAb prevent further spread in the body, but also flag the diseases to activate other parts of the immune system. NAb are thus an essential component of the immune system. Previous studies showed promising results: high levels of NAb were associated with survival in laying hens. Breeding for natural antibodies could be the strategy to improve general disease resistance. However, selection on NAb should not lead to reduced production.
Breeding for disease resistance
To investigate the potential of selection for increased general disease resistance, the researchers measured NAb levels of almost 3,700 purebred ISA laying chickens. They measured total NAb levels, and NAb levels for different forms of antibodies. Heritabilities were estimated to be 0.12 for total NAb levels, and between 0.07 and 0.14 for the different NAb forms. In addition, relations between the different forms of antibodies were very high. Tom Berghof, involved in the studies, explains: “This show that there is genetic potential for selection on NAb levels. Also, it is possible to select for different forms of NAb simultaneously, because they seem to be mainly regulated by the same genes.”
Effect on production
Relations between immune characteristics and production characteristics have been described before in several species, and are often negative. This is in line with the resource allocation theory, which states that energy spend on immunity cannot be spend on, for example, growth. Relations between NAb and production characteristics of almost 2,400 hens were studied. Most production characteristics were found not to be regulated by the same genes as NAb. However, a small negative relation was found between egg production efficiency and one NAb form. Berghof and colleagues conclude that selection for NAb might have some negative effects on production, but these negative effects seem to be small.
Remarkably, one form of NAb was found to be associated to the mother’s eggshell color and egg breaking strength. Additional analyses were done in order to get more insight in the origin of these maternal effects. Berghof states: “If eggs had a whiter eggshell, than NAb levels in the offspring were higher. If eggs had a stronger eggshell, than NAb levels in the offspring were lower. So it seems that there is some kind of relation between the eggshell and the immune system, especially for the eggshell color.” At this moment the researchers are investigating this relation, since this was never described in chickens before.
Applications and future plans
Free-range housing systems in poultry production increase the risks of spreading infectious diseases. There is an increased need for a robust laying hen. Breeding for natural antibodies could be a strategy to get this robust laying hen. “But before this strategy can be used in commercial breeding programs, more knowledge is needed about the genes underlying NAb levels.” says Berghof. “However, we did already start selecting chickens for high or low total NAb levels on a small scale, resulting in a high and a low line. Eventually, we will test these lines under real life conditions, to evaluate whether NAb indeed lead to a higher general disease resistance with minimal negative consequences on production.”
Read the full article in PLOS ONE for more information on genetic parameters of NAb, and the relation between NAb and the eggshell. Read the full article in Poultry Science for more information on the relations between NAb and production characteristics.
Science and Technology Foundation of Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO-STW, grant number 12208), and Institut de Sélection Animale (ISA)—a Hendrix Genetics company are gratefully acknowledge for their intellectual and financial contribution to this project.