Lecturer helps find out how chickens keep their cool

The Transylvanian naked neck chicken has developed its defining feature because of a complex genetic mutation (photo courtesy of The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh)

A Heriot-Watt lecturer has been involved in research that has found why the Transylvanian naked neck chicken has developed such a distinctive look.

Dr Kevin Painter, from the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences worked with researchers at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh to investigate why the Transylvanian chicken has a head that looks like a turkey's, while its body resembles a chicken's.

The team found that the chicken - once dubbed a Churkey or a Turken because of its hybrid appearance  - has developed its defining feature because of a complex genetic mutation. A vitamin A-derived substance produced around the bird's neck enhances the effects of the genetic mutation. This causes a protein - BMP12  - to be produced, suppressing feather growth and causing the bird to have an outstanding bald neck.

Dr Painter's contribution to the research was mathematical/computational modelling to test the hypotheses driven by the experimental research, as well as to generate new predictions that could be explored in the lab.

The findings of the team could help poultry production in hot countries, including in the developing world, because chickens with naked necks are much better equipped to withstand the heat. The discovery also has implications for understanding how birds - including vultures  - evolved to have featherless necks due to their metabolism of vitamin A selectively in neck skin.

Transylvanian naked necks, which are thought to have originated from the north of Romania, have been around for hundreds of years and were introduced to Britain in the 1920s.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Dr Denis Headon, who led the research at The Roslin Institute, said: 'Not only does this help our understanding of developmental biology and give insight into how different breeds have evolved but it could have practical implications for helping poultry production in hot countries including those in the developing world.'

Researchers analysed DNA samples from naked neck chickens in Mexico, France and Hungary to find the genetic mutation. Skin samples from embryonic chickens were also analysed using complex mathematical modelling to identify the genetic trigger.