Two North Carolina State University poultry science professors recently transferred a gene into a chicken and then tracked the gene in offspring.

The feat could lead to a better understanding of birth defects and how they are transmitted through genes, the scientists said. Their findings are reported in the March issue of Developmental Dynamics.

“This is really a powerful research tool, and it’s the first time anyone has had this tool in avian biology,” said Dr. James Petitte, professor of poultry science. He worked with Dr. Paul Mozdziak, an assistant professor of poultry science.

The chicken embryo is often used as a model for understanding normal and abnormal embryo development, the scientists said. Successful development of a transgenic chicken line could be used in studies of birth defects and other aspects of human and animal science.

“Although there are people who have made transgenic chickens before, no one has produced a transgenic chicken expressing a reporter gene that can be easily tracked,” Mozdziak said. “We can now take cells from our transgenic chicken and put those cells into a chick embryo or another transgenic chicken and see how the cells behave and interact with each other.”

The professors used RNA carrying a reporter gene (lacZ gene, which is easy to detect and expresses an antibody known as beta-galactosidase), injecting it into the blastoderm, or cells on the surface of the yolk. The eggs were allowed to hatch and the chickens were tracked for the lacZ gene. It was found in eight of 15 male chickens that lived to sexual maturity, NCSU said. It was found in later generations as well.