Genetically Modified Chickens Don't Pass On Avian Flu

Image by Jim Bahn, Flickr Creative Commons

Would you buy genetically modified chickens and eggs if those same birds couldn’t give other birds—or humans—avian flu? That’s a question you might have to ponder soon enough, according to a paper published last week in the journal Science.

Researchers from several United Kingdom universities provided chickens a gene that acted as a proverbial wrench in the cog of the virus’ machinery. In other words, it stopped the virus in its tracks, preventing it from replicating or being passed on. The genetically modified birds still died after exposure to H5N1 flu virus, but here’s the key: They didn’t infect any nearby chickens, not those with the new DNA, not those without.

Eventually, that could result in fewer chickens getting sick and consequently, less risk for their wild brethren. It also means a whole flock won’t be compromised if a wild bird carrying avian influenza comes in contact with one rooster or hen. “Avian influenza is very contagious among birds,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Some of these viruses can make certain domesticated bird species, including chickens, ducks, and turkeys, very sick.”

Avian flu-resistant chickens are also better for humans. “Bird flu vaccines work against only one subtype, they need to be updated frequently as the virus evolves, and they don’t fully protect against infection, giving the virus a chance to spread silently,” writes Martin Enserink in Science’s January 14 News of the Week. “Flocks with built-in resistance would put an end to all that.”

These genetically modified chickens are still safety tests and other experiments away from ending up on your dinner table. As Laurence Tiley, a molecular virologist at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead, told The Guardian, “these particular birds are only intended for research purposes, not for consumption.”

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