Daddy is a duck, mum’s a chicken

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Daddy is a duck, mum’s a chicken

A team of Dubai scientists, led by Dr Chunhai Liu, may hold the ticket to reviving a species of extinct bird, after they successfully used a duck to father a chicken.

By Amanda Fisher

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Published: Mon 22 Apr 2013, 8:32 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 7:55 AM

It may seem from the realms of science fiction, but scientists at Dubai’s Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) are turning fiction into fact through the use of primordial germ cells — a type of stem cell stacked with sexual material.

The idea germinated in the wake of the first successful cloned sheep, Dolly, when CVRL Scientific Director Dr Ulli Wernery decided to try to help increase numbers of the endangered desert bird Houbara Bustard — the chief prey of falconers in the Gulf.

“There are two reasons the population declined, and is still declining: because of hunting and habitat destruction. It’s always the same,” Wernery said.

However, cloning birds is “almost impossible” because it is so hard to extract genetic material from the yolk of a foetus, so scientists devised the current technique to transplant sexual material from a Houbara into a chicken.

“Houbaras only breed once a year, laying three to four eggs. Chickens lay 300 eggs a year, that is the advantage. We can clearly see it’s a lot of work (but) you can save very rare breeds, not only Houbaras...with this technique.”

The team have been working on this project for more than a decade, producing four chicken eggs fathered by a duck, and two Houbara eggs fathered by a chicken in the past three years, though the research has only just been publicised.

Scientists first extract a drop of blood from the embryo of a three-day old Houbara egg — which invariably survives as the interference is negligible — before the material is inserted into the embryo of a chicken, which at sexual maturity produces both Houbara sperm and chicken sperm. The sexual material from the chicken with the Houbara cells is then used to fertilise a female Houbara, and the resulting chick is a pure Houbara bird.

The next challenge for scientists, Wernery said, was to use a female chicken with Houbara cells as the vector of the Houbara sexual material, in order to lay Houbara eggs at the same rate chicken eggs were laid.

Since findings had been published, CVRL had had numerous approaches from scientists around the world, including America where scientists had access to the frozen carcasses of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, which is believed to have died out in 1914.

“They want to revive them with our method,” Wernery said.

“I’m sure it will happen. Science is now advancing, who was talking about cloning 20 years ago? Nobody, now everyone’s cloning...they will be successful, I’m sure.”

Wernery said there were no ethical issues with the method, as most of the embryos from which cells were extracted survived — while CVRL had in recent weeks mastered a way to produce their own Houbara cells without needing embryos.

“There’s also the question: ‘Does it make sense (to produce more of a particular bird)?’. In my opinion it makes a little bit of sense, but we’re better to protect the species that are still alive but endangered...otherwise another one will be extinct, and you have to start this process again.”

There would have to be strict controls on the release of cultivated populations of birds, as released birds may threaten existing populations of other birds, Wernery said.

Wernery said he hoped the cultivated population of Houbaras would then be used as prey for the falconers, leaving the wild population stable.

“One day, if there’s no Houbara, falconry is dead and this we don’t want, it’s a very nice sport...but we have to be careful.”

Wernery said the science elite of the world were surprised to learn Dubai science was at the vanguard of various research — possible only through the millions of dirhams in support from His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“People are always astonished when they hear from us that Dubai is doing this...many other people can benefit from this research.”

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