A genetically modified chicken that does not pass on avian influenza (bird flu) to other chickens, effectively protecting the health of domestic poultry has been developed by scientists at the Roslin Institute and Cambridge University, UK. The Roslin Institute is part of the University of Edinburgh. The scientists say their breakthrough may also help diminish the risk of new virus epidemics emerging in the human population.

You can read about this scientific breakthrough in the journal Science.

Dr. Laurence Tiley, Cambridge University, said that poultry are “potential bridging hosts” which allow new flu strains to infect humans.

Dr. Tiley said:

“Preventing virus transmission in chickens should reduce the economic impact of the disease and reduce the risk posed to people exposed to the infected birds.

The genetic modification we describe is a significant first step along the path to developing chickens that are completely resistant to avian flu. These particular birds are only intended for research purposes, not for consumption.”

Professor of Vertebrate Molecular Development, Helen Sang, said:

“Using genetic modification to introduce changes that cannot be achieved by animal breeding demonstrates the potential of GM to improve animal welfare in the poultry industry. This work could also help to improve economic and food security in many regions of the world where bird flu is a significant problem.”

The researchers placed a new gene into the poultry that produces a tiny decoy molecule – this molecule mimics a vital control element of the avian influenza virus. The virus ends up replicating the decoy instead of the viral genome.

When the genetically modified chickens were infected with bird flu, they became ill, but the other chickens around them didn’t – there was no bird-to-bird transmission. Not even the non-transgenic chickens (chickens not genetically modified) became infected.

Dr Tiley said:

“The decoy mimics an essential part of the flu virus genome that is identical for all strains of influenza A.

We expect the decoy to work against all strains of avian influenza and that the virus will find it difficult to evolve to escape the effects of the decoy.

This is quite different from conventional flu vaccines, which need to be updated in the face of virus evolution as they tend only to protect against closely matching strains of virus and do not always prevent spread within a flock.”

Prof. Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), the funders of the study, said:

“Infectious diseases of livestock represent a significant threat to global food security. “The potential of pathogens, such as bird flu, to jump to humans and become pandemic has been identified by the Government as a top level national security risk.

The BBSRC funds world-class research to help to protect the UK from such eventualities and the present approach provides a very exciting example of novel approaches to producing disease-resistant poultry.”

“Suppression of Avian Influenza Transmission in Genetically Modified Chickens”
Jon Lyall, Richard M. Irvine, Adrian Sherman, Trevelyan J. McKinley, Alejandro Núñez, Auriol Purdie, Linzy Outtrim, Ian H. Brown, Genevieve Rolleston-Smith, Helen Sang, and Laurence Tiley
Science 14 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 223-226
DOI: 10.1126/science.1198020

Written by Christian Nordqvist