Most of the turkeys gracing the nation's dinner tables Thursday have been selectively bred for their white meat for so many generations that simply walking can be a problem for many of the big-breasted birds and sex is no longer possible.
A small research team is hoping to come to the rescue, employing the latest in biotechnology to chart the genetic map of America's favorite Thanksgiving meal and eventually alleviate the breeding problems.
The idea is to identify specific genes that produce desirable traits such as salmonella resistance, strong leg muscles and, of course, big breasts. That would do away with much of the guesswork involved in traditional breeding methods as farmers try to match birds that appear to have the sought-after qualities.
"Improved meat quality or disease resistance will probably be the first application resulting from this research," said Kent Reed, a University of Minnesota researcher leading the effort to map the turkey's genome.
Since the human genome was mapped in 2001, the genetic codes of all sorts of creatures have been published in record time and for much less money than the $3 billion it cost to catalog human genes.
Still, it's slow going for the turkey. With just $1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two commercial poultry interests, Reed hopes to publish by year's end a guide to roughly 300 turkey genes, and have twice that many by next Thanksgiving.
In the shadow of the chicken
That's far short of the 25,000 genes each gobbler is estimated to possess. The work is moving much slower than with other animal genome efforts, in part because the funding is comparatively paltry and few researchers are giving the turkey much attention.
That's nothing new for the turkey, which sits in the shadow of the chicken in terms of scientific, industrial and government support. It's been all downhill for Meleagris gallopavo, the scientific name for the wild turkey, since Ben Franklin failed in his bid to make it the national bird.
Unfortunately, the turkey's genetic sequence isn't particularly useful in the development of human medicines or the furthering of basic science, two big priorities when it comes to getting federal money for a genome project.
Also, the industry's $3 billion in annual U.S. sales can't compare to more popular livestock like the cow, pig and chicken that have had their genetic sequence published with commercial backing.
Still, Reed and a few other scientists labor on, insisting that their work will help an industry solve a health care problem that afflicts many of the 267 million turkeys sold each year. They also hope for breakthroughs for turkeys resulting from the publication of the entire chicken genome earlier this year.
Animal rights activists unimpressed
"We are going to make the animals' lives better," said researcher David Harry, a Napa-based poultry industry consultant. Harry helped start the turkey genome project when he was at Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Sonoma, one of the largest U.S. breeders and a co-funder of the project.
Surmounting the sex problem poses a bigger challenge. Because the toms' breasts are so big, female turkeys need to be artificially inseminated. Identifying sex genes vital to reproduction would be a start, researchers say.
Meanwhile, some animal rights activists are decrying the genomic work as furthering what they see as a cruel process.
"That type of research is designed to make a bad situation a little less bad," said Gene Bauston, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, which aims to prevent what it considers farm animal cruelty and promotes a vegan diet. "It doesn't get to the problem that these animals are being treated as commodities and it's generally done to fit the animal into the machinery of the factory farm."