Disease-induced variability of genetic correlations: ascites in broilers as a case study

K.H. de Greef, L.L.G. Janss, A.L.J. Vereijken, R. Pit, C.L.M. Gerritsen

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    Breeding against a production disease is complicated by multiple relationships between productivity, disease, and environment. Ascites in broilers is such a disease. The combination of the reasonably well understood etiology (a physiological/pathological cascade due to inadequate oxygen supply) and the practical relevance makes ascites a relevant case for demonstrating and partly revealing these complex relationships. Chickens (n = 2,788) were tested in an ascites-challenging (cold) environment. Genetic analysis of mortality and pathology in combination with performance and physiological traits (especially blood gas traits) revealed ample opportunities for selection against ascites expression. The genetic correlation structure indicated that different mortality traits and pathology traits roughly represent one common characteristic. Direct selection against pathology is more effective than selection on the basis of growth or blood gas traits. The observed negative correlation (-0.26) between productivity and ascites was unexpected. From the etiology of ascites (inadequate supply of oxygen relative to the demand), a positive (unfavorable) correlation was expected. To demonstrate that the actual disease occurrence caused this apparent contradiction, the data from the undiseased subpopulation were reanalyzed. In the undiseased subpopulation, the genetic correlation between productivity and ascites was positive (0.29). This discrepancy was confirmed by comparing regression of ascites expression on actual performance with regression of ascites on independently assessed performance breeding values. The lability of the genetic correlation was explained from complex interactions between productivity, disease susceptibility, and actual occurrence of the disease. The revealed mechanism can be generalized to other production-related diseases and results in systematically lower genetic correlations between disease and productivity. It was inferred that genetic correlations between productivity and such diseases will always be prone to the demonstrated environmental sensitivity, which complicates index selection against production-related diseases.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1723-1733
    JournalJournal of Animal Science
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


    • Ascites
    • Broilers
    • Environmental factors
    • Genetic parameters
    • Genotype enivonment
    • Metabolic disorders


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