The Science of Sustainability

Turkey Trouble: Genetics Gone Too Far?

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We've bred these poor things to the point where they can't even reproduce anymore without our help.

No, this isn’t a blog about genetically modified organisms — that has been argued enough lately! Instead, in honor of Thanksgiving, I want to talk about regular old selective breeding and the monsters it can create: the industrial turkey, the main course at most dinner tables on Thursday.

What we have all conspired to do to this once noble bird is appallingly awful. In our drive for more healthy white meat, we have selected for giant versions of turkeys with grotesquely over-sized breasts. How over-sized? Their breasts are so big at this point that these poor things can’t successfully mate. Every industrial turkey was created by artificial insemination.

Not only that, but all of that extra muscle has created birds in constant pain. Their bones just can’t easily handle all of that muscle being packed on so quickly. Add the damage to their hearts and the resulting high rate of heart attacks and you have something pretty close to monstrous.

And remember, we didn’t engineer these things at all. These caricatures of wild turkeys were hidden in the turkey genome all along.

Most species have an incredible amount of variation prepacked into their genomes. Look at a Great Dane and a Chihuahua and you’ll know what I mean! Both came from the same basic set of recipes, the wolf genome.

Wild turkeys have a wide range of possible turkeys hidden in their genome too. The current industrial turkey is just a certain combination of all of the different gene versions (or alleles) that were already present.

It doesn't just stop at turkeys either. Breeding for specific traits affects other animals too.

Of course, if nature had stumbled on this particular combination of alleles in the wild, the resulting turkey would not have survived. Even if it managed to avoid bone damage and heart attacks, the thing couldn't successfully breed anyway. No, this turkey would have mercifully died out.

The situation is different on the factory farm. There the traits which would have doomed this turkey are selected for and this turkey ends up the “winner.” There are definitely different pressures in natural and artificial selection!

All of this raises the obvious ethical question. Just because we can breed this turkey, should we? The turkey lives a short, miserable life but we get an affordable, healthy source of protein. It is obvious which choice we’ve made as a society, but is it the right one?

And of course this discussion shouldn’t stop at the turkey. Chickens are having heart attacks all over the place, golden retrievers have a ridiculously high rate of cancer, and so on for many other artificially selected animals. Should we let this continue so we can have cheaper meat or a dog that looks just so?

Before ending, I do want to say that I am not opposed to all artificial selection. Without it, we’d have very few of the crops we have now. Our corn wouldn’t be as sweet, our grapes and bananas would have seeds and so on. It is just that we might want to be more careful in what we create. Especially when we tinker with animals.

Additional Reading:

Great Wired Science Article on the Topic

Article on problems associated with rapid growth

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Category: Biology, Blog, Food, Sustainable Food

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Barry

    Does anyone know about some good meatless alternatives? All the ones I have tried have been mediocre at best.

  • John Fiorentino

    Barry says……………

    "It is just that we might want to be more careful in what we create"

    I simply say……..

    Perhaps we should leave creation to the creator.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  • Geoffrey Swenson

    The worst problem about overbred dogs are mental problems. My sister's dog is a lunatic, I don't see how she can stand him.

    • John Fiorentino

      Mankind thinks we are so smart. We play with things which we often have very little knowledge of.

      We deny, because we cannot "see." We doubt because we cannot "hear." And we ridicule because we cannot "touch."

      Good science perhaps, but a bad perspective for living.