What the Hell Is a Churkey?

My, those little turkens sure do look delicious!
My, those little turkens sure do look delicious!

What has the body of a chicken, the head of a turkey, and is bred for its skills in magic? Okay, so that last one's a rip on Napoleon Dynamite, but there really is such a beast, originating in the far corners of Eastern Europe.

Recently scientists at the Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University set out to unravel the mystery of the Transylvanian Naked Neck Chicken, also known as the "churkey" or "turken," and how the bird with an especially elongated, featherless neck came to be.

Using DNA samples comparing "naked" chickens in Mexico, France and Hungary, scientists were able to locate the genetic mutation, intensified by an A-derived substance produced around the bird's neck. This results in production of BMP12, a protein responsible for suppressing feather growth. Apparently a bare head and neck serve to keep the bird cool, making the churkey particularly well suited for life in warm, tropical climates.

Why do we care? In theory, isolating the gene will allow it to be replicated, and food companies are always on the lookout for a heartier, more cost-effective farm animal. The recently deceased Don Tyson hit it big by engineering a variety of exceptionally large breasted chicken for McDonald's, making Tyson Foods one of the largest meat production companies in the world.

While a naked head may not have the same profitable implications as a larger chest, the churkey could be a vital resource for food in sweltering third world countries, where chickens generally don't fare well against the heat. Dr Denis Headon, head of the research study for the Roslin Institute, told BBC News last week, "Not only does this help our understanding of developmental biology and give insight into how different breeds have evolved, but it could have practical implications for helping poultry production in hot countries, including those in the developing world."

Okay, that's all fine and good - but more importantly, Doctor, how does it taste?

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