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GM chickens that do not transmit bird flu

Posted on 15. April, 2011.

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Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh in the UK have genetically modified chickens to prevent them from spreading the avian influenza virus to others.

This genetic modification has the potential to stop bird flu outbreaks spreading within poultry flocks as well as reduce the risk of bird flu epidemics leading to new flu virus epidemics within the human population. The research was funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and was published in the January 14, 2011 issue of the journal Science.

Dr Laurence Tiley, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Virology from the University of Cambridge, Department of Veterinary Medicine, says: "Chickens are potential bridging hosts that can enable new strains of flu to be transmitted to humans. 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 Helen Sang, from The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, adds: "The results achieved in this study are very encouraging. Using genetic modification to introduce genetic 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 form the basis for improving economic and food security in many regions of the world where bird flu is a significant problem."

To produce these chickens, scientists introduced a new gene that manufactures a small "decoy" molecule that mimics an important control element of the bird flu virus. The replication machinery of the virus is tricked into recognising the decoy molecule instead of the viral genome and this interferes with the replication cycle of the virus.

When the transgenic chickens were infected with avian flu, they became sick but did not transmit the infection on to other chickens kept in the same pen with them. This was the case even if the other chickens were normal (non-transgenic) birds.

The full paper can be found in Science, 331 (6014), 223–226. doi: 10.1126/science.1198020.

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