Genetically modified chickens won’t spread bird flu

By • Published: April 29th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Scientists in England say they have a new weapon to fight the flu… bird flu, that is. It’s not an innovative vaccine or an anti-viral medicine. This tool lies within the birds themselves.

Avian influenza most commonly infects wild birds, but sometimes a domesticated poultry flock comes down with a strain. It’s a farmer’s worst nightmare. The flock must be exterminated, eliminating any potential profit it might produce, and farm workers must be monitored for the disease.

But what if there was a definitive way to confine the virus to just a few birds, or maybe even one? Writing in the journal Science, researchers say they’ve made it possible by creating a genetically modified chicken. The so-called transgenic chickens have an apparently harmless gene variation that stops avian flu viruses from replicating.

These birds have an extra bit of R-N-A… a component of the genetic code. This piece attracts an enzyme essential for flu virus reproduction. Instead of joining up with the virus and helping it replicate, the enzyme hooks onto the extra R-N-A. Here, it’s useless.

Because the virus can’t reproduce, it can’t spread to other animals or to people. An infected transgenic chicken typically dies, but the disease won’t pass through the flock. That could help greatly reduce the risk to people and poultry alike.

When these chickens breed, they’ll pass the genetic variation on to their offspring. In time, it’s possible there could be entire flocks of transgenic chickens.

But even that wouldn’t fully eliminate the threat of bird flu in chickens. Small farms and families who own a chicken or two might never go transgenic. Bird flu may always be a threat, but genetic modification may one day give poultry farmers a way to protect their flocks, their livelihoods and their lives from the disease’s aches and pains.