Genetic modifications have created chickens that don't transmit flu to other chickens. Scientists hope that this will lead to healthier poultry and keep avian flu viruses from spreading to the human population. Will we soon be bowing to chicken overlords?
Scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh have announced a major step forward in disease-proofing our food. After much research, they have been able to genetically modify chickens so that they do not transmit the flu to the chickens around them, even if they themselves are infected. This modification should be effective against all strains of influenza A and so could take most flu viruses out.
According to Doctor Laurence Tiley of Cambridge, the trick was to outplay the virus. The scientists injected a gene that caused the chickens to manufacture a decoy molecule:
"The decoy mimics an essential part of the flu virus genome that is identical for all strains of influenza A. We expect the decoy to work against all strains of avian influenza and that the virus will find it difficult to evolve to escape the effects of the decoy. This is quite different from conventional flu vaccines, which need to be updated in the face of virus evolution as they tend only to protect against closely matching strains of virus and do not always prevent spread within a flock."
The decoy mimics a control element, a swatch of DNA that regulates which sections of the gene are actually used during the protein-building process. The virus uses this decoy, and the decoy makes it hard for the virus to replicate itself.
This is good news for chickens and people alike. Avian flu viruses tend to hop to humans. The most virulent was the flu of 1918, which killed between 50 and 100 million people, more than World War I. With fewer chances at replication, avian flu has fewer chances to mutate into something that could make problems for human beings. Despite the potential advantages, transgenic chickens won't be part of the food supply yet. So far, they're only for research purposes.