Turkey on Your Table -- Not Like Its Ancestors

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The estimated 45 million turkeys that many Americans eat on Thanksgiving are genetically distinct from their wild turkey ancestors.

"Ancient

turkeys weren't your Butterball," Rob Fleischer, head of the

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation and

Evolutionary Genetics, said in a press release. "We set out to compare the genetic diversity of

the domestic turkeys we eat today with that of the ancestral wild turkey

from South Mexico. Some of what we found surprised us."

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He and his colleagues determined that the domestic turkey

that ends up on the dinner table has less genetic variation than

not only its ancestral wild counterparts, which were first domesticated

in 800 B.C., but also than other livestock breeds, such as domestic pigs

or chickens.

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The genetic traits affected by the variation are body size

and breast muscle development — features that can help determine the

likelihood of a consumer buying a turkey.

"Few

people know that the commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving

descended from Mexico, where they were discovered during the Spanish

Conquest and transported to Europe," said Julie Long, senior author of

the study and research physiologist with USDA's Agricultural Research

Service in Beltsville, Md.

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"During the next 100 years, Europeans created

many different varieties of the domesticated turkey. It's important to

assess the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys

in the event that some unforeseen problem might threaten the stability

of the commercial turkey lines."

The scientists sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and

compared them to those of three South Mexican turkeys collected

in 1899 from Chihuahua, Mexico. The ancient turkey samples came from

specimens at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

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"It

is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of

variation," Fleischer said. "What did surprise us, however, is how well

the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the

genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and

structure. These data and this approach show great promise for

determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey

domestication."

The findings are published in BMC Genomics.

As a side note, turkeys in the 19th century were often boiled instead of roasted for fancy dinners. I'm guessing that the meat from these birds was tougher, but perhaps more flavorful. Isabella Beeton, the Martha Stewart of her day, wrote about the "noble dish" of turkey in 1859. Some companies still sell free-range "wild" turkeys.

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