Paper: ”Mixed ancestry and admixture in Kauai’s feral chickens: invasion of domestic genes into ancient Red Junglefowl reservoirs”

We have a new paper almost out (now in early view) in Molecular Ecology about the chickens on the Pacific island Kauai. These chickens are pretty famous for being everywhere on the island. Where do they come from? If you use your favourite search engine you’ll find an explanation with two possible origins: ancient wild birds brought over by the Polynesians and escaped domestic chickens. This post on Kauaiblog is great:

Hawaii’s official State bird is the Hawaiian Goose, or Nene, but on Kauai, everyone jokes that the “official” birds of the Garden Island are feral chickens, especially the wild roosters.

Wikepedia says the “mua” or red jungle fowl were brought to Kauai by the Polynesians as a source of food, thriving on an island where they have no real predators. /…/
Most locals agree that wild chickens proliferated after Hurricane Iniki ripped across Kauai in 1992, destroying chicken coops and releasing domesticated hens, and well as roosters being bred for cockfighting. Now these brilliantly feathered fowl inhabit every part of this tropical paradise, crowing at all hours of the day and night to the delight or dismay of tourists and locals alike.

In this paper, we look at phenotypes and genetics and find that this dual origin explanation is probably true.


(Chickens on Kauai. This is not from our paper, but by Jeff Trimble (cc:by-sa-nc) published on Flickr. There are so many pretty chicken pictures there!)

Dom, Eben, and Pamela went to Kauai to photograph, record to and collect DNA from the chickens. (I stayed at home and did sequence bioinformatics.) The Kauai chickens look and sound like mixture of wild and domestic chickens. Some of them have the typical Junglefowl plumage, and other have flecks of white. Their crows vary in the length of the characteristic fourth syllable. Also, some of them have yellow legs, a trait that domestic chickens seem to have gotten not from the Red but from the Grey Junglefowl.

We looked at DNA sequences by massively parallel (SOLiD) sequencing of 23 individuals. We find mitochondrial sequences that fall in two haplogroups: E and D. The presence of the D haplogroup, which is the dominating one in ancient DNA sequences from the Pacific, means that there is a Pacific component to their ancestry. The E group, on the other hand, occurs in domestic chickens. It also shows up in some ancient DNA samples from the Pacific, but not from Kauai (and there is a scientific debate about these sequences). The nuclear genome analysis is pretty inconclusive. I think what we would need is some samples of possible domestic source populations (Where did the escapee  chickens came from? Are there other traditional domestic sources?) and a better sampling of Red Junglefowl to make better sense of it.

When we take the plumage, vocalisation and mitochondrial DNA together, it looks like this is a feral admixed population of either Red Junglefowl or traditional Pacific chickens mixed with domestics. A very interesting population indeed.

Kenneth Chang wrote about the paper in New York Times; includes quotes from Eben and Dom.

E Gering, M Johnsson, P Willis, T Getty, D Wright (2015) Mixed ancestry and admixture in Kauai’s feral chickens: invasion of domestic genes into ancient Red Junglefowl reservoirs. Molecular ecology

Paper: ”Heritable genome-wide variation of gene expression and promoter methylation between wild and domesticated chickens”

Since I love author blog posts about papers, I thought I’d write a little about papers I’ve contributed too. So far, they’re not that many, but maybe it can be a habit.

Heritable genome-wide variation of gene expression and promoter methylation between wild and domesticated chickens” was published in BMC Genomics in 2012. The title says it very well: the paper looks at differential expression and DNA methylation of a subset of genes in the hypothalamus of Red Junglefowl and domestic White Leghorn chickens. My contribution was during my MSc project in the group. Previously (Lindqvist & al 2007; Nätt & al 2009) Daniel Nätt, Pelle Jensen and others found a transgenerational effect of unpredictable light stress on domestic chickens. After that, and being interested in chicken domestication, a DNA methylation comparison of wild and domestic seems like a natural thing to do. And it turns out Red Junglefowl and White Leghorns differ in expression of a bunch of genes and in methylation of certain promoters (where promoter is operationally defined as a region around the start of the gene model). And when looking at two generations, the contrasts are correlated between parent and offspring. There is some heritable basis of the differences in gene expression and  DNA methylation.

In Red Junglefowl, ancestor of domestic chickens, gene expression and methylation profiles in thalamus/hypothalamus differed substantially from that of a domesticated egg laying breed. Expression as well as methylation differences were largely maintained in the offspring, demonstrating reliable inheritance of epigenetic variation.

What I did was methylation sensitive high resolution melting. HRM is a typing method based on real time PCR. After PCR you often make a melting curve by ramping up the temperature, denaturing the PCR product. The melting characteristics depend on the sequence, so you can use melting to check that you get the expected PCR product, and it turns out that the difference can be big enough to type SNPs. And if you can type SNPs, you can analyse DNA methylation. So we treat the DNA with bisulfite, which deaminates cytosines to uracil unless they are protected by methylation, and get a converted sequence where an unmethylated C is like a C>T SNP. We set up standard curves with a mixture of whole-genome amplified and in vitro methylated DNA and measured the degree of methylation.

That is averaging over the population of DNA molecules in the sample; I’ve been wondering how HRM performs when the CpGs in the amplicon have heterogenous methylation differences. We’ve used HRM for genotyping as well, and it works, but we’ve switched to pyrosequencing, which gives cleaner results and where the assay design is much easier to get right the first time. I don’t know whether the same applies for methylation analysis with pyro.


My favourite part of the paper is figure 4b (licence: cc:by 2.0) which shows methylation analysis in the advanced intercross of Red Junglefowl and White Leghorns, which immediately leads to, as mentioned in the paper, the thought of DNA methylation QTL mapping.


Nätt, D., Rubin, C. J., Wright, D., Johnsson, M., Beltéky, J., Andersson, L., & Jensen, P. (2012). Heritable genome-wide variation of gene expression and promoter methylation between wild and domesticated chickens. BMC genomics, 13(1), 59.

Lindqvist C, Janczak AM, Nätt D, Baranowska I, Lindqvist N, et al. (2007) Transmission of Stress-Induced Learning Impairment and Associated Brain Gene Expression from Parents to Offspring in Chickens. PLoS ONE 2(4): e364. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000364

Nätt D, Lindqvist N, Stranneheim H, Lundeberg J, Torjesen PA, et al. (2009) Inheritance of Acquired Behaviour Adaptations and Brain Gene Expression in Chickens. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6405. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006405