Glowing in the dark, GMO chickens shed light on bird flu fight
In the realm of avian research, the chicks with the glow-in-the-dark beaks and feet might one day rock the poultry world.I wish I could be more enthusiastic. The problem is, when you start genetically modifying plants or animals, you may solve a problem in the short term. But in the longer term, you may be creating bigger problems, caused by unforeseen side effects of deliberate genetic modifications, and by worse threats from diseases/insects predators that evolve themselves or change their behavior to adapt to the new genetically altered plant/animal.
British scientists say they have genetically modified chickens in a bid to block bird flu and that early experiments show promise for fighting off the disease that has devastated the U.S. poultry and egg industries.
Their research, which has been backed by the UK government and top chicken companies, could potentially prevent repeats of this year's wipeout: 48 million chickens and turkeys killed because of the disease since December in the United States alone.
But these promising chickens - injected with a fluorescent protein to distinguish them from normal birds in experiments - won't likely gatecrash their way into poultry production any time soon. Health regulators around the world have yet to approve any animals bred as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for use in food because of long-standing safety and environmental concerns.
Bird flu has become a global concern among researchers over the past decade because of its threat to poultry and human health, and UK researchers have been toiling in genetic engineering for years to control its spread.
People who are in close contact with infected poultry are most at risk for flu infections, and scientists are concerned about the risk for a human pandemic if the virus infects someone and then mutates. No humans have been infected in the latest U.S. outbreak, but there have been cases in Asia in recent years.
"The public is obviously aware of these outbreaks when they're reported and wondering why there's not more done to control it," said Laurence Tiley, a senior lecturer in molecular virology at the University of Cambridge, who is involved in the experiments.
At Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, scientists are using genetic engineering to try to control bird flu in two ways: by blocking initial infections in egg-laying chickens and preventing birds from transmitting the virus if they become infected.
To genetically engineer chickens, the UK researchers inject a "decoy" gene into a cluster of cells on the yolk of a newly laid egg. The egg will hatch into a chick containing the decoy gene, which it will be able to pass on to its offspring.
The decoy gene is injected into the chicken chromosome alongside the fluorescent protein that makes the birds glow under ultraviolet light, similar to glow-in-the-dark posters in college dorm rooms. The birds would not be bred to glow if they are commercialized.
When the modified birds come into contact with the flu, their genetic code is designed to trick the virus into copying the decoy and to inhibit the virus' ability to reproduce itself.
In one study with a form of decoy, scientists put 16 infected conventional chickens in contact with a mixture of 16 normal and 16 GMO chickens that contained a decoy. The GMO birds were found to be less susceptible and succumbed to infection more slowly than the conventional birds, said Tiley.
A more flu-resistant bird could be a notable advance from the basic steps that farmers now rely on to avoid infections in barns, including banning visitors and disinfecting vehicle wheels.
Wild ducks, which can carry the virus, are thought to have spread the disease in the United States by dropping contaminated feces and feathers on farms. Humans can then transport the disease on their boots and trucks. [...]
Scientists may keep altering the plant or animal in response, till it becomes so modified from the original that it becomes degraded and vulnerable to something the original never had a problem with. And if the genetically modified mix with the originals, that vulnerability spreads to all of them. Our food supply could die out.
With so many people experiencing unemployment, we would be better off using people to go back to smaller farms using tried and true methods that don't degrade our food supply. But I don't see that happening, because:
1.) Agribusiness wants to keep their monopoly.
2.) Farming is hard work, and most people in advanced Western societies won't do it.
So we do the easy thing and let this continue, only to pay a worse price down the road. There has to be a better way.