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Genetic variation in eggshell crystal size and orientation is large and these traits are correlated with shell thickness and are associated with eggshell matrix protein markers

Authors


Ian Dunn, The Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush, Midlothian, EH25 9RG, Scotland, UK
E-mail: ian.dunn@roslin.ed.ac.uk

Summary

The size and orientation of calcium carbonate crystals influence the structure and strength of the eggshells of chickens. In this study, estimates of heritability were found to be high (0.6) for crystal size and moderate (0.3) for crystal orientation. There was a strong positive correlation (0.65) for crystal size and orientation with the thickness of the shell and, in particular, with the thickness of the mammillary layer. Correlations with shell breaking strength were positive but with a high standard error. This was contrary to expectations, as in man-made materials smaller crystals would be stronger. We believe the results of this study support the hypothesis that the structural organization of shell, and in particular the mammillary layer, is influenced by crystal size and orientation, especially during the initial phase of calcification. Genetic associations for crystal measurements were observed between haplotype blocks or individual markers for a number of eggshell matrix proteins. Ovalbumin and ovotransferrin (LTF) markers for example were associated with crystal size, while ovocleidin-116 and ovocalyxin-32 (RARRES1) markers were associated with crystal orientation. The location of these proteins in the eggshell is consistent with different phases of the shell-formation process. In conclusion, the variability of crystal size, and to a lesser extent orientation, appears to have a large genetic component, and the formation of calcite crystals are intimately related to the ultrastructure of the eggshell. Moreover, this study also provides evidence that proteins in the shell influence the variability of crystal traits and, in turn, the shell’s thickness profile. The crystal measurements and/or the associated genetic markers may therefore prove to be useful in selection programs to improve eggshell quality.

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