Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London suggest it's possible to prevent the spread of bird virus in chickens by taking out a small part of the animal's DNA within lab-grown cells using CRISPR gene-editing technology.
They found a molecule inside chicken cells called ANP32A is used by flu viruses to help replicate themselves, Meatingplace reported. Scientists reason if chickens without this molecule could be produced, it might help eliminate the threat of bird flu, which has killed millions of chickens and can also infect humans.
"In this research, we have identified the smallest possible genetic change we can make to chickens that can help to stop the virus taking hold. This has the potential to stop the next flu pandemic at its source," Wendy Barclay, study co-author and chair in influenza virology at Imperial College London, said in a college press release.
This discovery could be significant in stopping the spread of avian flu and uses a different approach than previous studies. Other research from the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge University resulted in genetically modified chickens that didn't spread the virus after being infected. However, this technique doesn't introduce new genetic material into chicken DNA, but deletes some of it.
No chickens have yet been produced using this new technique, and the scientists noted more research will need to be done to see if there is any impact on remaining cells. According to Reuters, the first gene-edited chicks will be hatched later this year at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute.
Avian flu outbreaks have caused serious damage to the poultry industry in the U.S. and elsewhere. After an outbreak that started in late 2014, millions of birds had to be destroyed. The Wall Street Journal estimated it took out 10% of the country's egg-laying flock. Another outbreak in 2017 at a commercial chicken farm linked to Tyson Foods in Tennessee caused more than 73,000 birds to be destroyed, the Journal reported.
Manufacturers and consumers consequently felt the pinch as a pound of liquid whole egg leaped 90% in 2015 and Midwest shell egg prices increased about 36%. However, the industry quickly increased egg production following the outbreaks to the point that record low prices were the norm in 2017. Since then, fluctuations in egg supply and prices — as well as concerns about safety — have prompted increased demand for egg replacements, extenders and other techniques to limit the need for real eggs.
Should the U.K. scientists be able to produce chickens without the ability to catch or transmit bird flu, it could be a game changer for the poultry industry. But that assumes consumers would feel OK about eating eggs or meat from gene-edited animals. Considering how many consumers feel about eating food derived from GMO crops, that might not be the case.
The Washington Post reported last year more than 300 pigs, cows, sheep and goats have been created using gene-editing tools, so the technique is already here, even though public support might lag behind.
Several big questions remain for gene-edited meat products, like whether consumers will accept products emerging from the technology. But since the science seems to be moving forward in spite of these uncertainties, it will be interesting to see whether consumers will keep up.