Tag Archives: Chickens

Backyards could supply between 50% to 100% of your family’s protein needs

Could your typical US household grow enough proteins for its own needs in the backyard? Researchers say ‘yes’.

Image credits Julio César García.

Despite — or rather, due to — everything that’s been going on since last year, people in the US have taken to their gardens in a big way. Equipment and supplies ranging from garden seeds to coops and rabbit cages were highly sought-after in 2020, and they’ve been flying off the shelves.

This gives us a chance to analyze the potential that individual households have of growing protein — and, according to research at Michigan Technological University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, even a backyard is enough for this purpose. Dedicating just part of it to growing soybeans, chickens, or rabbits can fulfil the typical family’s demand for protein, they explain.

Backyard Barbeque

As a response to the shortages experienced during the early days of the pandemic, some people turned to in-house production. Chickens were particularly popular, since they’re quite cute, easy to care for, and also lay eggs. I’ve even made a short primer on how to care for them here.

On average, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), your average person needs 51 grams of protein every day, which comes to 18,615 grams each year. Your average household, then, needs around 48,400 grams to make it through the year. We tend to get these from huge factory farms, since most people today don’t have the space to grow their own food, and we’d balk at having our cities full of livestock like our forefathers.

However, the researchers point out that small animals are much more efficient as a source of proteins than large ones, and they’re allowed within city limits. Furthermore, while lots of people don’t have extra room, the average backyard in the US ranges from 800 to 1,000 square meters, or about 8,600 to 10,700 square feet.

“You don’t have to convert your entire backyard into a soybean farm. A little goes a long way,” said Joshua Pearce, one of the study co-authors and Michigan Tech’s Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“I’m a solar engineer; I look at surface area and think of photovoltaic production. Many people don’t do that — they don’t treat their backyards as a resource. In fact, they can be a time and money sink that they have to mow and pour fertilizer on. But we can actually be very self-reliant when we treat our yards as an asset.”

Pearce’s co-authors initially banded together to perform an agrovoltaics study on the practicality of raising rabbits under solar panels. However, when they went out to buy cages in 2020, they found wide-ranging shortages all through the US. They then refocused their work to address the impacts of the pandemic, like a lot of other researchers. What they looked at is how backyards can help insulate families from shortages of essential goods, like food.

Using the average backyard as a measuring stick, a typical family could produce up to 50% of their protein requirement themselves, assuming these would be used as space to raise chickens or rabbits. To fully cover their own demand, a family would need to raise and care for 52 chickens or 107 rabbits, which wouldn’t be exactly easy (or legal, depending on where you live). According to the team, the “real winner is soy”.

Consuming plant protein directly is way more efficient compared to feeding it to animals. Such protein can provide 80% to 160% of household demand, the team explains.

Whether or not you’ll be saving money on this depends on exactly how you go about it, but it is possible even if food prices don’t increase, according to the authors. But how much you value your time, your effort and your enjoyment from tending to your crops, and how much importance you place on food quality will all impact how much you’d gain from a backyard farm.

“It does take time. And if you have the time, it’s a good investment,” Pearce said, pointing to other research on building community with gardens, mental health benefits of being outside, and simply a deeper appreciation for home-raised food. “Our study showed that many Americans could participate in distributed food production and help make the U.S. not only more sustainable, but more resilient to supply chain disruptions.”

The paper “U.S. Potential of Sustainable Backyard Distributed Animal and Plant Protein Production during and after Pandemics” has been published in the journal Sustainability.


Researchers make chicken cells resist bird flu by snipping out a tiny bit of their DNA

Designer chicken cells grown in the lab at Imperial College London can resist the spread of bird flu.


Image credits Samet Uçaner.

Bird flu, as its name suggests, is mostly concerned with infecting birds. And it’s quite good at it: severe strains of bird flu can completely wipe out a whole flock. In rare cases, the virus can even mutate to infect humans, causing serious illness. As such, bird flu is a well-known and scary pathogen in the public’s eye.

Now, researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute have devised chicken cells that can resist infection with the bird flu virus. Their efforts pave the way towards effective control of the disease, safeguarding one of the most important domesticated animals of today.

Be-gone, flu

“We have long known that chickens are a reservoir for flu viruses that might spark the next pandemic. In this research, we have identified the smallest possible genetic change we can make to chickens that can help to stop the virus taking hold,” says Professor Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College London and the paper’s corresponding author. “This has the potential to stop the next flu pandemic at its source.”

The findings could make it possible to immunize chickens to the virus using a simple genetic modification. No such chickens have been produced just yet, but the team is confident that their method will prove safe, effective, and palatable with the public in the long run.

The approach involves a specific molecule found in chicken cells, called ANP32A. Researchers at Imperial report that during a bird flu infection, viruses use this molecule to replicate (multiply) and continue attacking the host. The researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute worked to gene-edit chicken cells to remove a portion of DNA that encodes the production of ANP32A.

With this little tweak, the team reports, the virus was no longer able to replicate inside the cells.

Members at The Roslin Institute have previously worked on something similar. Teaming up with researchers from Cambridge University at the time, they successfully produced gene-edited chickens that didn’t transmit bird flu to other chickens following infection. However, the approach they used at the time involved adding new genetic sequences into the birds’ DNA; while the proof-of-concept was very encouraging, the approach didn’t seem to stick, commercially.

“This is an important advance that suggests we may be able to use gene-editing techniques to produce chickens that are resistant to bird flu,” says Dr. Mike McGrew, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and a paper co-author.

“We haven’t produced any birds yet and we need to check if the DNA change has any other effects on the bird cells before we can take this next step.”

The paper “Species specific differences in use of ANP32 proteins by influenza A virus” has been published in the journal eLife.

Research team grows “dinosaur legs” on a chicken for the first time

Researchers in Chile, studying the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds, have manipulated the genome of chicken embryos so that they develop dinosaur-like bones in their lower legs.

Image credits to DeviantArt user AivisV.

Most dinosaurs perished some 65 million years ago when a meteor impacted earth — but not all of them. The ones that survived gave rise to the birds we know today. To understand how this transition happened, a research team from Chile altered the genes of regular chicken so that they grow longer, tubular fibulas (the spine-like bone you’ll find in a drumstick.)

In avian dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx, this tube-like bone reached from the knee all the way down to the ankle alongside the tibia. Bird embryos show the developmental stages for fibulas akin to those seen in Archaeopteryx but at maturity the bones are shorter, thinner and pointy towards the end, no longer reaching the ankle.

Researchers led by Joâo Botelho from the University of Chile decided to investigate how this transition from a long, tubular fibula in dinosaurs to a short, splinter-like fibula in birds took place. When they inhibited the expression of the IHH gene (short for Indian Hedgehog gene) bird embryos’ fibulas continued to grow in a similar shape to those seen in dinosaur fossils. This way, the team discovered that this bone grows — or rather, stops growing — differently than most other bones.

Usually, bone development first halts in the shaft long before the ends stop growing, but in modern chickens the fibula first stops its growth at the ends, then the center — meaning the bone is actively blocked from growing into a more dinosaur-like shape. The researchers suggest that this cessation of growth in the lower end of the fibula is prompted by a bone in the ankle, called the calcaneum.

Development of the fibula is normal during early stages of development, but then abruptly stops. Image credits João Francisco Botelho et. al./ author provided.

Development of the fibula is normal during early stages of development, but then abruptly stops. Bone on the left is the tibia.
Image credits João Francisco Botelho et. al./ author provided.

In avian dinosaurs such as the Archaeopteryx, the fibula was a tube-shaped bone that reached all the way down to the ankle. Another bone, the tibia, grew to a similar length alongside it.

“Unlike other animals, the calcaneum in bird embryos presses against the lower end of the fibula,” the team explains in a press release.

“They are so close, they have even been mistaken for a single element by some researchers.”

Image credits João Francisco Botelho et. al./ author provided.

The interaction between the calcaneum and the fibula signals the bone shaft to stop developing, essentially blocking it from reaching anywhere near the ankle. But, with the IHH gene expression blocked, the calcaneum strongly expresses the gene for Parathyroid-related protein (PthrP), which allows for growth at the ends of bones. The result — dinosaur-like fibulas, just like Archaeopteryx had.

“Experimental downregulation of IHH signalling at a postmorphogenetic stage led to a tibia and fibula of equal length,” the team writes in the report.

“The fibula is longer than in controls and fused to the fibulare, whereas the tibia is shorter and bent.”

Birds lost their long fibula as evolution selected against it in one of their direct ancestor groups — dinosaurs known as the Pygostylians.

“The experiments are focused on single traits to test specific hypotheses,” one of the team, Alexander Vargas, explains.

“Not only do we know a great deal about bird development, but also about the dinosaur-bird transition, which is well-documented by the fossil record. This leads naturally to hypotheses on the evolution of development, that can be explored in the lab.”

Last year, the same team grew dinosaur-like feet on their chickens, and a separate team in the US managed to grow a dinosaur-like ‘beak’ on its chicken embryos.

The full paper, titled “Molecular development of fibular reduction in birds and its evolution from dinosaurs” has been published online in the journal Evolution and can be read here.