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Into the Chicken Coop

With nearly £2 million (about $3 million) in funding, the Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions project, also called Chicken Coop, is examining how the chicken was domesticated, Nature News reports.

Greger Larson, the Durham University evolutionary geneticist who is leading the Chicken Coop project, has been studying the DNA of ancient chickens. Chickens have been traced to guinea fowl like red jungle fowl, but Larson's work identified variants in two genes in modern chickens that are not in guinea fowl. One variant, if present in two copies gives chicken skin and legs their yellow color when they eat a diet containing carotenoids. The other variant is in the thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor gene, which likely affects the seasonal mating habits of the birds, allowing them to lay eggs year round.

Larson also examined whether ancient chickens had these variants by studying samples from across Europe from 280 BC to 1800 AD. He found that none of those chickesn would have had yellow legs and only eight of 44 chickens had two copies of the TSHR variant, indicating that chickens from just a few hundred years ago differ from today's.

"With the help of other Chicken Coop members, Larson is also trying to get to grips with the wider evolutionary forces that shaped modern chickens," Nature News adds.

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