Interview with Professor Hiroyuki Nakano
 
It is thought that there are approx. 20 billion chickens on the earth.
Chickens feed humans and contribute to human health through vaccination research. How have chickens evolved into the animal we see today?
Professor Nishibori clarifies this process of evolution through DNA.
 
Two pillars of research: how chickens have been domesticated as livestock, and what ingredients are contained in food products made from livestock chickens
 
  Professor Nishibori belongs to the Animal Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, which undertakes research into the genetics of chickens and various other animals. Nishibori’s research in this laboratory has two pillars. One is research into how wild chickens have been domesticated as livestock. The other is an approach to identify ingredients contained in food products made from livestock chickens.

“We use a method called ‘DNA analysis’ for both of these research pillars. The former pillar is research concerning domestication, and investigating the process of how chickens have been domesticated. The latter pillar is an approach for clarifying meat ingredients that should not be naturally contained in food products, and that could raise allergic or religious issues,” tells Nishibori.

“The chicken is the animal that would be the most difficult for humans to dispense with. On the other hand, the chicken has become the least familiar livestock animal in our everyday lives.”
 
Nishibori says that there are so many kinds of chicken products around us that, if chickens disappeared, no convenience stores could survive, and riots would break out in Western Asia. In fact, there was a case in Mexico where the spread of avian influenza resulted in a riot. In the past, there used to be no large-scale spreads of avian flu as we see today. Nishibori suspects that this elevated susceptibility to avian flu must have caused by a change that occurred due to the breed improvement of chickens.

“It is expected that clarifying the history of the domestication of chickens could lead to the resolution of these problems, and be applied to breeding and various other aspects of chicken research.”
Nishibori points out that chickens are no longer kept in the yards of private houses, as a countermeasure against diseases, and that this is why opportunities to see chickens have substantially decreased. This is associated with another aspect of chicken research, as described later.
 
 
Ambitious goal to clarify the gene flows of various animals
 
  Chickens originated in Southeast Asia and spread around the world. In his research into the process of domestication, Nishibori aims to clarify the gene flow for the spread of chickens, by using DNA information on the one hand, and by physically observing local chickens on the other.

“We call this a ‘chicken world exploration project.’” While many laboratories for DNA analysis conduct their research indoors, Nishibori’s laboratory emphasizes physical observation, and takes students to other countries as frequently as possible, so that they can observe the actual lives of livestock with their own eyes, and collect and analyze samples with their own hands whenever possible.
 
“Doing so provides us with a strong sense of fulfillment. We can feel that we are analyzing that individual chicken that we observed at that time. This physical observation and recognition enhances our motivation,” remarks Nishibori.

This approach is not limited to chickens, but is also applied to pigs, camels, and even an endangered species called the “saiga antelope.” Nishibori’s team visits Okinawa every year to research a pig bred from wild boars. They also promote joint research of saiga antelopes with Kazakhstan.
 
 
  “The saiga is a kind of antelope. It is a little-known animal with an elephant-like trunk. We conduct research on how to preserve this critically endangered species. There used to be around 100,000 saiga antelopes, but the population suddenly dropped to 20,000 at a stroke. As part of the investigation into the cause of this sudden decline, we performed DNA analysis on the family relationships of the surviving saiga antelopes. This analysis clarified that the surviving antelopes were not genetically akin, and therefore no problems would result from conserving the surviving antelopes as they were.”

Nishibori also undertakes joint research on sunfish with marine biologists, suggesting his ever-expanding scope of interest.
 
Has been practicing the development of next-generation researchers for 15 years; his motto is “What you like, you will do well.”
 

  Nishibori is well known among high school students. On a request from a prefectural high school, he started, about 15 years ago, high school-university cooperation for students in science and mathematic courses. For about 10 years, he has also participated in, and given catered lectures at, programs and events including “Hirameki Tokimeki Science (innovativeness & excitement of science)” for elementary school, junior high school, and high school students, organized by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; and “Yumenavi Live,” organized by FROMPAGE and sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. His lectures are always entertaining, easy to understand, and therefore become popular. Nishibori has received many awards for these activities.

“The most exciting times are when I find something new, and when I communicate what I am doing to many people. This is why I come and talk whenever I’m asked,” says Nishibori, all smiles.

He promotes these activities because he believes that the essence of universities is to develop the next generation. “In the Hirameki Tokimeki Science program, I have students from my laboratory guide experiments as science communicators. For high school students, graduate students represent what they could be in only a few years, and therefore the graduate students seem more familiar to high school students than I do.” In fact, several students have already entered the School of Applied Biological Science after becoming interested in their research through catered lectures by Nishibori and other events. One of the students under his guidance also entered the school in this way. Nishibori looks happy when he states, “Our laboratory frequently provides students with occasions to speak in front of others, such as at scientific conferences. Through these efforts, our graduate students usually receive an award or two before they complete their courses, and also easily find employment.”

In the meantime, Nishibori has continuously requested that the audience of his catered lectures draw a chicken. “The submitted drawings always include several four-legged chickens! I have also found out that the majority of Japanese people draw chickens facing the left.”

Nishibori says that he not only uses these chicken drawings for discussion during his lectures, but also regards them as another research theme of him. “I would like to analyze this phenomenon through control experiments. This also makes an interesting theme for children who participate in my lectures, and helps them recognize that science always has exceptions.”

While he unfortunately cannot keep research animals by himself, since he travels around the world to conduct research and give lectures, Nishibori finds enjoyment in endeavoring to improve the recognition of Hiroshima University, where he has earned the moniker “Dr. Chicken.”
In conclusion, the interviewer asked for his message to young people: “What you like, you will do well. Come to like many things, and study them. Hiroshima University offers you an environment to do just that!”
 
Masahide Nishibori
Professor, Animal Breeding and Genetics Laboratory

January 1, 1991 – March 31, 2005 Assistant, School of Applied Biological Science, Hiroshima University
April 1, 2002 – March 31, 2005 Assistant, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
April 1, 2005 – March 31, 2007 Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
April 1, 2007 – Associate Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
April 1, 2019 – Associate Professor, Graduate School of Integrated Sciences for Life, Hiroshima University
April 1, 2020 – present Professor, Graduate School of Integrated Sciences for Life, Hiroshima University

Posted on Jul 14, 2017