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Phenotypic and genomic characterisation of performance of tropically adapted chickens raised in smallholder farm conditions in Ethiopia

Background: In sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of poultry production is on smallholder village farms, where chickens are typically reared outdoors in free-ranging conditions.

Phenotypic and genomic characterisation of performance of tropically adapted chickens raised in smallholder farm conditions in Ethiopia

There is limited knowledge on chickens’ phenotypic characteristics and genetics under these conditions. Objective: The present is a large-scale study set out to phenotypically characterise the performance of tropically adapted commercial chickens in typical smallholder farm conditions, and to examine the genetic profile of chicken phenotypes associated with growth, meat production, immunity, and survival. Methods: A total of 2,573 T451A dual-purpose Sasso chickens kept outdoors in emulated free-ranging conditions at the poultry facility of the International Livestock Research Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were included in the study.

The chickens were raised in five equally sized batches and were individually monitored and phenotyped from the age of 56 days for 8 weeks. Individual chicken data collected included weekly body weight, growth rate, body and breast meat weight at slaughter, Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV) titres and intestinal Immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels recorded at the beginning and the end of the period of study, and survival rate during the same period. Genotyping by sequencing was performed on all chickens using a low-coverage and imputation approach. Chicken phenotypes and genotypes were combined in genomic association analyses. Results: We discovered that the chickens were phenotypically diverse, with extensive variance levels observed in all traits. Batch number and sex of the chicken significantly affected the studied phenotypes. Following quality assurance, genotypes consisted of 2.9 million Single Nucleotide Polymorphism markers that were used in the genomic analyses. Results revealed a largely polygenic mode of genetic control of all phenotypic traits. Nevertheless, 15 distinct markers were identified that were significantly associated with growth, carcass traits, NDV titres, IgA levels, and chicken survival.

These markers were located in regions harbouring relevant annotated genes. Conclusion: Results suggest that performance of chickens raised under smallholder farm conditions is amenable to genetic improvement and may inform selective breeding programmes for enhanced chicken productivity in sub-Saharan Africa.

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