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Thursday 23 November 2017

End of chicken and egg debate? How modern fowl came from religious dogma

Chickens were domesticated from Asian jungle fowl around 6,000 years ago. Stock picture
Chickens were domesticated from Asian jungle fowl around 6,000 years ago. Stock picture

John von Radowitz

Religious dogma in the Middle Ages helped to create the modern domestic chicken, new research suggests.

Scientists found that traits such as reduced aggression, faster egg-laying and an ability to live in close proximity to other birds emerged in chickens in about 1,000AD.

Chicken evolution may have been strongly influenced by the impact of Christian beliefs on what people ate, they suggest.

During the Middle Ages, religious edicts enforced fasting and the exclusion of four legged animals from menus. However, the consumption of chickens and eggs was permitted during fasts.

In addition, increasing urbanisation may have helped drive the evolution of modern domesticated chickens, said the scientists.

Chickens were domesticated from Asian jungle fowl around 6,000 years ago. But the new study, which combined DNA data from archaeological chicken bones with statistical modelling, showed that some of the most important features of the present day chicken arose more recently.

The researchers, from Oxford University, were surprised to find that they originated in the high Middle Ages during a time of soaring demand for poultry.

They traced the evolutionary history of more than 70 chickens, looking for changes in the THSR gene that determines levels of aggression. Natural selection favoured chickens with THSR variants that helped them cope with living close to one another, the study found.

A thousand years ago just 40pc of the chickens studied had this gene, which is present in all modern domesticated chickens.

THSR variants also led to faster egg laying and a reduced fear of humans, said the scientists from Oxford University, whose findings appear in the journal 'Molecular Biology and Evolution'.

Irish Independent

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