Art and science installation to develop new genetically diverse chicken for Africa

Image credit: Koen Vanmechelen

A unique initiative to launch the world’s ‘most intriguing’ poultry facility is bringing together art and science in a bid to develop disease-resistant, climate-resilient chickens to improve nutrition and income for farmers in East Africa.

Nottingham geneticist Dr Olivier Hanotte in The University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences, is among scientists working with Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen on Incubated Worlds, an advanced poultry research project, breeding facility and art installation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The facility will explore the potential treasure trove of genetic traits of a bird dubbed the Cosmopolitan Chicken , developed as part of an artistic crossbreeding project by Vanmechelen.

In a 20-year artistic odyssey, Vanmechelen has created 20 generations of chickens that combine traits from breeds from around the world, including several from across Europe and the Americas, in addition to indigenous chickens from China, Egypt, Senegal, Indonesia and Cuba.

The Incubated Worlds initiative has emerged from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded African Chicken Genetic Gains (ACGG) project, an initiative that is tapping the rich genetic diversity found in poultry to provide more opportunities for rural poultry producers - many of whom are women - to earn a decent living and raise healthy, well-nourished families.

Partners in the project include the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) , where Dr Hanotte is currently working on secondment.

Dr Hanotte and fellow livestock geneticist Dr Tadelle Dessier at ILRI have worked with EIAR to import and hatch several of Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chickens, which will be crossed with indigenous breeds of chickens preferred by Ethiopian farmers to create what Vanmechelen and the scientific partners are calling the Ethiopian African Planetary Community Chicken.

Healthy and productive

Crossbreeding enriches the diversity of the local flock, helping to strengthen poultry resilience and local food systems. The approach seeks to broaden, replenish and conserve the genetic base of Ethiopian chickens.

Dr Hanotte said: “Every generation of the artist’s chickens seems to be healthier than the last, but they haven’t been selected for productivity. Our challenge now is to incorporate this diversity in a chicken for Ethiopians that is also very productive.”

Dr Dessie added: “What we ultimately want through Incubated Worlds are chickens that have the genetic diversity they need to both survive devastating poultry diseases and to adapt to a changing climate while still producing a lot of food for farmers.”

The art installation component of Incubated Worlds includes photographs, videos and books that provide insights into the complex genetics of both Vanmechelen’s many generations of poultry and an indigenous Ethiopian village chicken. The genomes of both birds have been sequenced by scientists to study their wide variety of genetic traits. The scientists and artist say they want to give the public a greater appreciation of the importance of genetic diversity to the economy and well-being of the country.

“This is going to be the most intriguing poultry facility in the world,” Vanmechelen said. “I see it as a place where people can immediately understand that this very global farm animal—one found in almost every country in the world and acceptable as food in every religion—is the product of many, many local communities. And if we don’t maintain and value this cosmopolitan heritage, then we could lose it.”

Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken installations have been featured in major exhibitions in galleries from New York to London. As part of the Incubated Worlds facility, Vanmechelen has installed large chicken portraits representing the diversity and heritage of his Cosmopolitan Chicken. Just inside the entrance, visitors will find two of Vanmechelen’s Book of Genomes. They include the genetic code, produced both in English and transcribed into Ethiopia’s Amharic language, of the first Ethiopian chicken to have its genome sequenced and the DNA code of the 20th generation of the Cosmopolitan Chicken. The book displays are enhanced by two accompanying video installations at the facility depicting a multitude of people reading the Ethiopian chicken’s genetic code in Amharic and that of the Cosmopolitan Chicken in a variety of other languages.

While hoped that Incubated Worlds will make the subject of livestock diversity engaging and stimulating, the Ethiopian facility is also a response to food insecurity in the region. With new research demonstrating that just one egg a day can prevent stunting and enhance the brain development of young children, the poultry facility is a great opportunity to improve nutrition in Ethiopia. The work of this facility will support Ethiopia’s ongoing fight to prevent childhood stunting, which has already been reduced by a third since 2010.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous state with one of the region’s largest livestock sector, demand for milk, meat and eggs—for domestic consumption and export—is rising rapidly.

Economic growth and prosperity

Part of the work at Incubated Worlds will involve bringing in farmer associations to study more efficient breeding practices and to learn about the latest improvements in feeding and raising chickens to help them develop and grow viable poultry businesses.

ILRI’s Director General Jimmy Smith said: “Of all livestock, poultry production can be scaled up to meet household nutritional needs far more affordably and sustainably than other types of farm animals. We want our poultry work in Ethiopia to serve as a model for how livestock can be a source of economic growth and prosperity and a way to improve household incomes and nutrition that can be particularly beneficial for women farmers, who typically invest their earnings from poultry in feeding their families and educating their children.”

Dr Hanotte’s work is part of the Future Food Beacon of Excellence at Nottingham, which is aiming to pioneer world-leading research to address the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing world.

As part of this, a PhD student from Dr Hanotte’s team will work at the new Incubated Worlds facility on food security research.

Funding for the Incubated Worlds facility has come from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) ; the Roslin Institute , part of the University of Edinburgh ; and the MOUTH Foundation , which seeks to harness diversity to promote new types of unity and harmony.