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Professor Carl Schmidt on heat stress genetics

Using gene editing to tackle heat stress in chicken and his sabbatical at the Roslin Institute.

Carl Schmidt with Roslin collaborators Mike McGrew and Adam Balic.
Carl Schmidt (middle) with Roslin collaborators Mike McGrew (L) and Adam Balic (R).

Professor Carl Schmidt is a professor at the Department of Animal & Food Sciences of the University of Delaware, who is currently on sabbatical leave at the Roslin Institute, visiting Dr Mike McGrew’s and Dr Adam Balic’s research groups. In an interview, he told MSc Science Communication student Juan Tian how time spent at Roslin is helping him to advance his work on the genetics of heat stress in chicken.

Tell me about your research in a nutshell.

My research focus is on understanding the genetics behind how chickens deal with heat stress. Because of their growth traits, commercial chickens have reduced tolerance of high temperatures. This is important for agriculture in low and middle-income countries, many of which have tropical climates.

What brings you to Roslin?

I came to Roslin for two reasons. One was to learn how to do gene editing in chicken and the other was to learn more about immunology. Roslin is one of the best places in the world to do that.

I’ve been learning with Dr McGrew how to edit the chicken genome – the chicken genetic make-up – and also learning with Dr Balic, who also does genome editing and immunology research in chicken and is one of the leading experts in the field of avian immunology.

What have you been working on at the Roslin Institute?

We identified the genes we think play an important role in how well chicken deal with heat stress. Now we are able to actually test the hypothesis to figure out which particular gene is involved in this response.

The next step is to edit the genome using gene-editing techniques, in order to see what happens if we make this change in how these birds respond to heat stress.

Hopefully, the outcome will be making cells in which we successfully edit these four genes and change them, so that we can start to ask questions about their function.

What are the applications of your work?

At this stage, we’re doing basic research trying to understand how the organism responds to heat stress. Our hypothesis is that the genes we are targeting may play a role in heat stress, moving from heat stress to heat stroke – chickens are much more likely to die if they have suffered heat stroke.

The next step is to understand whether we can help prevent heat stroke. From this perspective, understanding the role of these genes in heat stress could help poultry production, if we can figure out how to reduce the number of birds that die during a heat wave.

And chickens can be used as a model to study other animals. The genes we are looking at are common in many species from chickens to humans, so what we learn from chickens will help us understand how heat stress progresses in other animals.

How does the research environment here help to advance your research?

Roslin is unique – it has a high number of really good people in many different fields. If I have a question, perhaps about some genes I’m working on, I can walk downstairs and talk with a specialist immediately and that makes progress faster.

Importantly, it is the best place in the world to understand how to perform genome editing and how to get both gene-edited cells and organisms, like chicken.

Once you have that, you can test the cells or the organisms and see if the changes helped them to sustain heat stress.

What's your plan for the future, will you continue the collaboration with Roslin?

When I go back to the University of Delaware, the intention is to move my lab in the direction of doing gene editing and continue to work with Dr Balic, focusing on the genes we have started working on. And there are several other genes that we have hypothesised are involved in the heat stress response, so we hope to continue the project back in the United States.

Basically, I hope this is the next step in my career. The technology here spans from very basic research to applied research, and it’s always great to be able to apply what you are learning at the basic level to the applied level in the context of dealing with heat stress.

Related links

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Genetic selection and editing could improve animal fitness

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