With turkey consumption reaching its peak over the coming weeks in many markets, the announcement that an international consortium of researchers has completed the majority of the genome sequence of the domestic turkey is particularly timely.

For the turkey industry, the achievement opens up the possibility of improved meat quality, better disease control, and reduced cost.

In 2008, the consortium set out to map the genetic blueprint for the domesticated turkey. Turkey is only the fourth-most popular meat in the US, yet the country is predicted to consume almost 2.4 million metric tons this year. EU consumption is expected to be in the region of 1.8 million metric tons.

Assistant Professor of Animal and Poultry Science’s at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which contributed to the initiative, Rami Dalloul, commented: “In the short term, the genome sequence will provide scientists with knowledge of specific genes that are important in meat yield and quality, health and disease resistance, fertility, and reproduction. For example, we don’t always know the mechanism for how post-pathogen interactions work. The genome sequence will allow us to better understand this process, which will in turn give us a better understanding of disease prevention and treatment.”

Additionally, the sequence should have long-term benefits for turkey producers. They may be able to use this new knowledge to grow turkeys more quickly and more healthily. Should they be able to produce the same-sized bird in a shorter period of time, they would also be able to reduce costs.

An improved understanding of genetic variation in the species and in breeding populations would also lead to the development of new tools that producers could use to breed turkeys that have desirable texture, flavour, and leanness.

The genome sequence may also have applications in the biomedical field. Ed Smith, professor of animal and poultry sciences at Viginia Tech is investigating an avian condition similar to dilated cardiomyopathy in humans, while other consortium members are studying the effects that aflatoxins have on turkeys.

Some 93% of the turkey’s genome had been sequenced at the time of the announcement. How the remainder will be sequenced has yet to be decided but the work provides food for thought as we approach the turkey season.

The turkey is the third bird to have its genome sequenced; the other two are the domestic chicken and the zebra finch.