Genetically Modified Chickens: Secret To Stopping Bird Flu?

Australian scientists are working to create genetically modified chickens that are immune to bird flu.

The researchers, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), are looking to create a line of disease-resistant chickens, capable of withstanding the deadly bird flu.

“If this avian influenza stuff works you’ll want to be in Geelong. Right now, is the first time we have ever produced a resistant animal to a major disease like this,” CSIRO AAHL Director Dr. Martyn Jeggo said. “If we can do it for one, why the hell can’t we do it for every other disease? This is a proof-of-concept project which is massive, massive, massive.”

The AAHL team works through a process called RNA interference (RNAi), which inhibits gene expression by destroying specific mRNA molecules. RNAi allows scientists to turn off certain genes, and had to led developments in biotechnology such as frost-resistant tomatoes.

“Interfering with RNAs is the real answer to vaccines and disease-resistant animals, cancer, a whole range of important things,” Dr. Jeggo told the Geelong Advertiser of Geelong, Victoria, Australia. “In CSIRO Plant Industries a lot of the pioneering work has been done for a lot of this ... which is why we (CISRO AAHL) are now the lead group in producing an influenza-resistant chicken.”

Chickens produced using mRNA in the AAHL study have not shown resistance to bird flu, but their chickens have been shown to express molecules affected by RNA interference.

“It’s a whole complicated process to be able to show that and then being able to breed from them,” Dr. John Lowenthal said. “The next generation of chickens will inherit higher levels of RNAi, which is why they are called GMOs (genetically modified organisms), because it’s an inheritable trait...the capability is passed on.” Lowenthal is the head of animal biosecurity research for CSIRO AAHL.

As the Geelong Advertiser points out, the project is funded by the world’s largest broiler producer.

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