Monday, September 16, 2013

Of Chickens and Viruses

If you live in the US, you most likely have two egg-color options at your grocery store or farmers' market: white or brown. The color of these eggs doesn't affect flavor or nutritional content of the eggs - it just depends on the breed of chicken that layed them. However, if you have a Araucana, Dongxiang, or Lushi chicken (and if you do, you probably don't live in North America) they will probably lay blue eggs. A recent study in PLoS Genetics has shown that the reason for this is a retrovirus, EAV-HP, that has affected the chicken and turned it's eggs blue. But how can a virus affect eggs color?

The answer lies in how retroviruses work. Retroviruses use RNA as their genetic material (instead of DNA like we do). However, when the virus infects a host cell, it uses an enzyme called Reverse Transcriptase to translate it's RNA genome into DNA. This DNA is then inserted into the host cells' DNA genome, essentially tricking the host cell into using the information in the new DNA to make more retroviruses. The most famous retrovirus that affects humans is probably the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, shown in the image above (green) infecting a human lymphocyte (pink). Sometimes, when a retrovirus inserts a gene into the host DNA, it can change or affect the expression of genes around the insertion point. This is what happened with the blue egg-laying chickens.

In the case of EAV-HP, the virus inserted near a gene for a membrane transporter called SLCO1B3 and turned it on in the chicken uterus. This change allows the developing eggs to take up a bile pigment called biliverden from the chicken's body, turning the egg blue. Because this gene became part of the chicken's DNA, it is able to pass on the trait to it's offspring. Due to preferential breeding of Araucana, Dongxiang, or Lushi chickens that have this trait, most chickens of these breeds now lay blue eggs. The exact DNA sequences near theSLCO1B3 genes in these breeds is different, suggesting that the retrovirus caused the DNA changes that result in blue eggs in independent events in all three breeds. Both the blue pigment and the retrovirus involved are completely harmless to humans, so if you see a blue egg, don't hesitate to fry it up and enjoy!

(via BoingBoing)
(Image: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV-I), a Creative Commons 2.0-licenses image from Microbe World's photostream)