Domestication Effects on the Stress Response in Chickens : Genetics, Physiology, and Behaviour

Abstract: Animal domestication, the process where animals become adapted to living in proximity to humans, is associated with the alteration of multiple traits, including decreased fearfulness and stress response. With an estimated population of 50 billion, the domesticated chicken is the most populous avian species in the world. Hundreds of chicken breeds have been developed for meat and egg production, hobby or research purposes. Multidirectional selection and the relaxation of natural selection in captivity have created immense phenotypic diversity amongst domesticates in a relatively short evolutionary time. The extensive phenotypic diversity, existence of the wild ancestor, and feasibility of intercrossing various breeds makes the chicken a suitable model animal for deciphering genetic determinants of complex traits such as stress response. We used chicken domestication as a model to gain insights about the mechanisms that regulate stress response in an avian species. We studied behavioural and physiological stress response in the ancestral Red Junglefowl and one of its domesticated progenies, White Leghorn. An advanced intercross between the aforementioned breeds was later used to map genetic loci underlying modification of stress response. The general pattern of the stress response in chickens was comparable with that reported in mammals, however we identified distinctive differences in the stress modulatory pathways in chickens. We showed that changes in the expression levels of several stress modulatory genes in the brain, the pituitary and the adrenal glands underlie the observed modified stress response in domesticated chickens. Using quantitative trait loci (QTL) mapping, several QTL underlying stress induced corticosterone, aldosterone and baseline dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) levels were detected. As a next step, we combined QTL mapping with gene expression (eQTL) mapping and narrowed two QTL down to the putative causal genes, SERPINA10 and PDE1C. Both of these genes were differentially expressed in the adrenal glands of White Leghorn and the Red Junglefowl, had overlapping eQTL with hormonal QTL, and their expression levels in the adrenal glands were correlated with plasma levels of corticosterone and al-dosterone. These two genes thus serve as strong candidates for further functional investigation concerning modification of the stress response during domestication. This dissertation increase the knowledge about genetics and physiology of the stress response in an avian species and its modification during domestication. Our findings expand the basic knowledge about the stress response in chicken, which can potentially be used to improve welfare through appropriate genetic selection.

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