Ellen Magner, March 2011
British scientists have developed genetically modified chickens that do not pass on bird flu. This new modification interferes with the way the avian influenza, more commonly known as ‘bird flu’, virus replicates. Trials involved infecting modified chickens with bird flu.
The infected chickens were then kept in a pen with other modified, and non-modified, chickens. While those that were initially infected became ill, none of the others contracted the virus.
It is believed this development could lead to stability and improved animal welfare in the poultry industry, as it could severely limit the spread of bird flu. The potential value of this development was shown just days after news of the modification was released, when Japanese authorities reported a cull of more than 400 000 chickens in an attempt to contain a bird flu outbreak.
It is also an important development because fowl are a ‘bridging host’ - a species of bird that can allow the avian influenza virus to mutate and spread to humans. This new modification has the potential to prevent a human outbreak, such as the global outbreak that occurred in 2004. Interestingly the source of that outbreak was traced back to fish factory workers who had been feeding live fish food that was made out of chicken faeces. They were the first people to become infected with the bird flu.
While researches are encouraged by what they have achieved so far, they are quick to point out that this is only an early development.
These genetically modified chickens are not intended for consumption, and may never be. The ongoing goal of the researchers is to eradicate avian influenza in chickens.