The researchers at the Roslin Institute have used gene-editing techniques to develop hens for use as surrogates to lay eggs from rare breeds.
A team led by Dr Mike McGrew used a genetic tool called TALEN to delete a section of chicken DNA. They targeted part of a gene called DDX4, which is crucial for bird fertility.
Hens with the genetic modification were unable to produce eggs but were otherwise healthy, the team found. DDX4 plays an essential role in the generation of specialised cells – called primordial germ cells – which give rise to eggs.
Researchers say that primordial germ cells from other bird breeds could be implanted into the chickens. The hens would then produce eggs containing all the genetic information from the other breeds. The surrogate chickens are the first gene-edited birds to be produced in Europe.
Dr McGrew said: “These chickens are a first step in saving and protecting rare poultry breeds from loss in order to preserve future biodiversity of our poultry from both economic and climate stresses.”
Other experts in the team say they could potentially be used to help breed birds of other species, as long as a supply of primordial germ cells is available from a donor birds.
The study, which included scientists from the US biotechnology company Recombinetics, is published in the journal Development and was funded by investment from the Biotechnological and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Dr Jef Grainger, BBSRC Science associate director, added: “This research partnership highlights the UK’s place as a global partner of choice, specifically in bioscience research.”