What Happens When An Artist Thinks Like a Scientist? Better Chicken

The chicken you eat comes from birds that only live for 5 years and are susceptible to disease and inbreeding. Thank goodness Koen Vanmechelen bred a better one.

What Happens When An Artist Thinks Like a Scientist? Better Chicken
Some of the genetic crossbreeds of the Cosmopolitan Chicken. Credit: Cosmopolitan Chicken Project

Sometimes it takes an artist to show scientists what they’ve been missing.

Koen Vanmechelen is that artist. For the last 20 years he’s bred his own chickens as part of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP). That might seem strange to you and me, but not to Koen. He mixes DNA the way other artists mix colors, and uses his chickens to demonstrate cultural and genetic diversity. Besides, chickens are one of the most common animals on the planet. There are 65 million of them. They produce 60 million tons of eggs that we use for everything from food to medicine production. That makes chickens “the most important animal in the world,” to Koen, as he told me over Skype. They never fail to surprise him: “Chickens are like a mirror for human culture,” he said. And he’s right.

That’s also why they’re in so many historical paintings. Wall painting at the Boulevard Saint Laurent, Montreal, Quebec Province, Canada, North America. Credit: Guenther Schwermer/GettyImages

Like humans, chickens are descended from a single species. The ancestor of the vast majority of the world’s chickens is the Red Junglefowl, which lives at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. From that one chicken came hundreds of different kinds, each uniquely adapted to their local environments and “reflecting the cultural characteristics of their regions and communities,” as the CCP site puts it. It’s a beautiful example of diversity.

But there’s a dark side to that much localization: genetic inbreeding, which we also see in humans. Over time, gene pools within highly localized, isolated communities become too narrow to sustain, rendering the population infertile. “Diversity is at the root of health,” geneticist Olivier Hanotte explained to me over Skype. “Genetically speaking, we know it’s bad to be inbred.” Particularly when chickens have been bred based on their productivity and efficiency.

In order to counter that effect and reverse the cycle of genetic erosion, Koen crossbred chickens from different countries to increase their genetic diversity and resilience to disease. He chose a different breed every year to demonstrate that “if we find combinations, then we make evolution,” as he told me.

He’s right about that, too.

CCP Genetic Tree.jpg

The genetic crossbreeds of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Credit: CCP

Each successive generation of chickens was more resilient than its parents. “The chickens lived longer, were less susceptible to disease, and exhibited less aggressive behavior,” the CCP site reports. “Chickens from industry have 4 million bits of genetic code,” Koen told me “My chickens have 40 million. In my 19th generation chickens, the fertility tripled from 30-90%. Their [genetic] diversity increased enormously.” He admitted that the chickens’ “immunity is difficult to prove” but their lifespans have also increased: “now my chickens live for 15 instead of 5 years.”

All of those benefits have been backed up scientifically. “Using SNP genotyping and whole genome sequencing, it has been proven that the CCP shows significantly higher diversity compared to purebred chicken and remarkable increased potential for gene transcription and expression,” the CCP site reports.

Encouraging as that is, that genetic diversity hasn’t been tested in the real world -- and that’s where Olivier comes in. Olivier found Koen via a Google search and was immediately intrigued by him and his project. “Koen is thinking as a scientist,” he told me. “He wanted to reconstruct the entire diversity of domestic diversity. Despite his training, he is actually thinking as a scientist. As an artist, he can actually do things that we can only imagine as scientists.” Koen agreed with that. “I think it’s very natural to work together in this way,” he told me about collaborating with a scientist. "For me, that's art. For the first time in history, we are able to have access to all kinds of different people. If we have to generate new knowledge, we have to make this combination.”

The two are teaming up this year for the Planetary Community Chicken (PCC) project, which will bring Koen’s genetically superior chickens to different communities and test their immunity and biological sustainability in real-world conditions. “The introduction of a new ‘global gene’ to the local flocks breaks the cycle of genetic erosion that can result from local inbreeding and industrial mono-cultural production,” the CCP site explains. “The desired outcome is to breed a stronger chicken that lives longer, and that, as a result, could offer longer-term economic and social stability to farmers.”

super chicken 2.jpg

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“Compared to other chickens adapted to single local area, it is quite possible his population of chicken can adapt to a very large diversity of environment,” Olivier told me. “Commercial chickens will never survive in the real world. They die rapidly. Koen's population will be hardy, but not breed so quickly. [Right now, the] crossbreeding that farmers do is breed local with commercial, [but Koen’s chickens] will produce more and continue to survive. That's the step Koen wants to move to.”

Koen is hoping to test with Olivier at his research site in Ethiopia by the end of the year. He’s also planning to bring the PCC to Zimbabwe, Siberia, Belgium, Cape Town, and Detroit -- which is where he’s at right now. He’s displaying his 20th generation crossbreed at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects until the end of the year. He’ll be crossing his 19th generation Mechelse Cemani chicken with the American Wyandotte, a chicken named for a Native American tribe local to the Great Lakes near Michigan. That’ll produce the 20th generation Mechelse Wyandotte -- which, since it carries DNA from 20 different breeds, will grant it the biggest DNA pool of any chicken on the planet.

Koen’s excited to see what will happen. “I want people to understand that life only exists because the other senses that you exist,” he told me. “Together we can reach a completely other goal than to just be on your own.” Olivier is excited, too. “There is a mystery in chicken,” he told me. “The more we explore the chicken the more we discover, and the more we discover we know extremely little about it. Koen's work is helping to understand this mystery. But I think it is just the beginning.”

Check out the mystery for yourself at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects from September 22 to December 17. You’ll never see chickens the same way again.

Credit: Wasserman Projects/YouTube

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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