Racing pigeons and genetics: about DNA, parental testing and speed genes

In this article we would like to discuss DNA, DNA profiling, parental testing, homing ability (the speed gene) with a theoretical and a practical approach.

What is DNA?

Each cell of every living creature has DNA in it (Deoxyribonucleic acid), which is a very small but very complex structure (in fact it is a specific structure of four stacked pieces of puzzle) that contains a whole lot of information about the creature.

Through analysis of DNA scientists have found that certain DNA units carry specific features and characteristics. Let me explain: one DNA unit can tell us something about the type of animal; another unit tells us its gender. This means that within one species of animal some DNA units will carry the same information, but within that species a single animal will have its unique DNA units that contain information about its gender, the colour of the eye and other unique features.

This means that all the features of one individual, in this case the pigeon, are contained in the bird’s genetic material. DNA determines for instance the appearance (the colour of its feathers, the eye of the bird) but also its flying skills, its breeding skills, endurance, etc.

These features are of course very important for a fancier: Just imagine if a fancier could have clear scientific proof of the presence or absence of such features in their pigeons. This would of course be of great help in breeding pigeons, in selecting pigeons for races etc.

This also means that we could make big improvements in the future in terms of time management: with the help of objective information we would know in advance whether a pigeon has the right genes that contain good features. This would make it easier to determine if a pigeon is to become a good racing pigeon or a good breeding pigeon (or neither of the two) and it would help to decide whether a pigeon should be basketed for races or if it should be moved to the breeding loft as soon as possible. This practice is already widely applied in other sports. In horse racing for instance the genes of a foal can tell us if it is capable of recording top times. These tests determine whether or not a horse will be used for horse racing.

In the last few years scientists have also managed to gain a better understanding of racing pigeons. As for the human and for some types of animals, scientists have laid out the structure of a pigeon’s genome. This means that the entire code has been determined but that the meaning of this code is not clear yet. These are important steps in gathering valuable information, although research is not as advanced as, for instance, the human.

International database PiGen

PiGen stands for Pigeon Genetics, a center for the enhancing, counseling and reliability of the genetic quality of racing pigeons. PiGen was founded by two veterinary surgeons, Ruben Lanckriet and Pascal Lanneau and the goal was to provide an answer to questions concerning scientific parental testing for pigeons.

PiGen does not only co-ordinate parental testing and the issuing of certificates; it will also gather and further investigate scientific information about the DNA of a pigeon and contribute to further scientific studies about the subject. That is why they cooperate with, for instance, professor Peelman from Ghent University.

The aim is also to try and harmonise the different studies in this field to allow for an easier international exchange of data and to improve constructive co-operation between veterinary surgeaons. PiGen promotes an international set of generic markers with a high fidelity by working out a standard procedure for vets and by promoting co-operation with certified laboratories (ISO 9901 and ICAR) for parental tests.

Parental testing

When a creature is born it carries some of the DNA of its father and some of its mother. That is why people would often say that someone looks a lot like one of his or her parents, either in appearance or characteristics. In some cases the appearance of a pigeon makes it clear that there is no blood relationship whatsoever but in many other cases it is difficult to tell. If you want to be sure about a pigeon’s parentage it might be useful to have scientific proof. For various reasons it might be necessary to have certainty about the parentage of a pigeon, for instance:

* if you want to sell a top class pigeon
* if you want to sell the descendants of top class pigeons
* if you want to sell the eggs of a top class pigeon
* if you want to enter a pigeon for an important race
* in case of theft
* if you do not know the parentage because the pigeons were not kept in separate boxes
* in case you have to remove its ring for medical purposes
* as a proof of a bird’s fertility
* etc…

By determining the DNA pattern or the so called genetic ID cards of the descendant in question and by comparing it to the DNA pattern of its alleged father and/or mother we can say with a 99% certainty whether or not a pigeon actually stems from the mother and/or the father.

Determining the DNA pattern is based on the study of markers, in this case microsatellites. By making a comparison between the markers of the alleged parents (or one of the parents) and their descendant it can be scientifically determined if a pigeon is indeed a descendant of another pigeon.

If we make use of at least six genetic markers the test is considered to be valid. If the test is done with about ten generic markers there is a very high level of certainty of at least 99%, which could be important for legal purposes.

In consultation with professor Deelman from the department of genetics at the University of Ghent we have decided to cooperate with a number of labs who offer tests for at least about ten markers and possibly twenty markers if necessary. These labs also have an official certificate for such DNA tests.

This explains the difference in price between different labs: a higher price is related to a higher certainty of the test. The price of a DNA test is determined by the PCR tests that are necessary to test the DNA markers. If more markers are verified there will be a greater degree of certainty for parental testing but it will be more expensive as well.

For parental testing it is always necessary to mention who is the alleged sire or dam. By comparing the markers it becomes clear whether or not a pigeon actually descends from the male or female pigeon in question.

Speed genes or performance genes (homing ability)

As we said earlier scientists have already managed to reveal a number of genes that provide information about the potential of a pigeon, for instance its homing ability (the ability to find their way home). Research is still at an initial stage but it is already clear that this has enormous potential. In the future we might want to have scientific proof about a pigeon’s abilities before we purchase it and transfer it to our racing or breeding loft.
This might and will be an important factor if you try to convince a fancier about the qualities of one your top class pigeon and its descendants. Our next article on this topic discusses the discovery of the performance gene found in the pigeon’s DNA.

©Ruben Lanckriet en Pascal Lanneau