UK – In an effort to tackle bird flu, UK scientists have turned to gene-editing techniques to modify chicken DNA, with the aim of curbing the spread of the virus.

This marked a significant progress in restricting the virus’s ability to infect chickens, and the research expected to have far-reaching implications for the poultry industry and human health.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Organization for Animal Health have been urging nations to take decisive action against bird flu following recent outbreaks in various regions around the world.

“Gene-editing offers a promising route toward permanent disease resistance, which could be passed down through generations, protecting poultry and reducing the risks to humans and wild birds,” Professor Mike McGrew from the Roslin Institute, which spearheaded the research, said.

“Our work shows that stopping the spread of avian influenza in chickens will need several simultaneous genetic changes.”

The research, published in the journal Nature, represented a crucial “proof of concept” in creating influenza virus resistant chickens. Collaborators on this project included the Roslin Institute, Imperial College London, and the Pirbright Institute.

The gene-editing technique employed in this study does not adversely affect the health and well-being of the chickens.

Researchers focused on altering the section of DNA responsible for producing a protein called ANP32A. When the ANP32A gene-edited chickens were exposed to a typical dose of avian influenza virus (bird flu), nine out of ten birds remained uninfected, and there was no virus transmission to other chickens.

However, when subjected to higher doses of the virus, five out of ten gene-edited birds became infected.

This suggested that multiple genetic modifications will be necessary to fully protect chickens from the virus.

Nevertheless, the virus levels in infected genetically modified chickens were significantly lower than in unmodified chickens, indicating some level of protection.

Additionally, the gene-edited chickens limited the virus’s onward spread to other chickens in close proximity.

The researchers emphasized that while the gene-edited chickens are not completely immune to bird flu, their work suggested that complete immunity might be achievable within three years.

The current findings indicate that a single ANP32A gene edit is not sufficient for large-scale application in chicken production.

To address this limitation and prevent the emergence of escape viruses that could still cause infection, the research team is now targeting additional sections of DNA responsible for producing all three ANP32 proteins (ANP32A, ANP32B, and ANP32E) in lab-grown chicken cells. 

These three gene edits have shown promise in blocking the virus’s growth.

Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), pointed out that gene-editing poultry to resist the virus only masks the problem.

He noted that addressing issues such as overcrowding and poor hygiene in intensive farming systems is essential to combat the spread of bird flu effectively.

“The development of genetically engineered animals for disease resistance and increased productivity is a global effort, with implications for food production and sustainability,” he emphasized.

“Gene-editing can enhance growth rates, reduce pollution, and potentially lead to the production of low-cholesterol eggs, reduced-lactose milk, and low-fat meat.”

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