1. Blood oxygen saturation (SaO) is a potential indicator trait for resistance to ascites in chickens.
2. The objective of the study was to investigate the genetic architecture of SaO in a meat-type chicken line reared in commercial conditions.
3. Data were collected over 15 generations of selection and were divided into two data sets on the basis of a change in recording age from 6 to 5 weeks of age, approximately halfway through the period. The resulting pedigrees comprised in excess of 90 000 birds each and, on average, 12% of these birds had SaO records.
4. Segregation analyses of SaO were carried out assuming a mixed inheritance model that included a major locus segregating in a polygenic background.
5. The analyses suggest that a major gene is involved in the genetic control of SaO in this line. The putative gene acts in a dominant fashion and has an additive effect of around 0.90 sigma(p), equivalent to a predicted difference in SaO between the two homozygous classes of more than 10%. The frequency of the allele that increases SaO changed from 0.53 to 0.65 from the first to the second set of data, consistent with selection on SaO scores.
6. Using estimated genotype probabilities at the putative major locus, we inferred that it acts in an overdominant fashion on body weight and fleshing score. If the low SaO allele leads to susceptibility to ascites, its combined effects are consistent with it being maintained in the population by a balance of natural selection on fitness and artificial selection on growth and carcase traits.
7. Even with selection on both SaO and growth traits, the combined genotypic effects would make it difficult to remove the unfavourable low-SaO allele by means of traditional selection without the use of genetic markers.