Breakthrough in gene editing technology offers hope for protecting poultry from bird flu outbreaks
Scientists have successfully used genetic “scissors” to create chickens that are resistant to bird flu, a breakthrough that could potentially protect flocks from the highly contagious disease. The strain of bird flu has caused the death or culling of over eight million poultry in the UK since 2021. However, while the findings are promising, researchers caution that more work is needed to ensure the gene editing technique does not lead to virus mutations that could pose a risk to humans.
The Gene Editing Technique
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London employed a precise molecular-level scissor technique to edit the DNA in a gene called ANP32A. This gene plays a biological role in healthy chicken cells, but when infected with bird flu, the virus hijacks the gene to replicate itself.
Resistance to Infection
The study revealed that when chickens with the altered gene were exposed to a typical dose of the virus, nine out of ten remained resistant to infection. Only one chicken released small amounts of the virus for a short period. The chickens remained healthy and continued to lay eggs throughout the two-year study.
Limitations and Mutations
However, the gene editing technique did not provide complete protection against the virus. When the virus dose was increased by 1,000 times, approximately half of the chickens experienced breakthrough infections. Furthermore, the researchers identified mutations in the virus as it attempted to evolve and regain control of the ANP32A gene. Lab tests showed that the mutated virus had some ability to use a version of the ANP32A gene found in human cells but was unable to cause an infection.
Caution and Future Research
Professor Wendy Barclay, one of the lead authors of the study, emphasized the need for caution. While the research demonstrates the potential to make chickens resistant to the bird flu virus, it is crucial to avoid making the virus more dangerous. Targeting the ANP32A gene may not drive the evolution of the next pandemic, but it could lead to undesirable mutations. More robust gene edits are necessary to effectively shut down virus replication.
The scientists have already conducted tests with chicken cells that have three edited genes, which showed complete resistance to the virus. However, further research and regulatory approvals are required before the gene editing technique can be used to produce flu-resistant flocks for farmers. A “precision breeding” bill has been passed in Parliament, allowing gene editing in plants and animals, but additional regulations are necessary before gene-edited products can be consumed as food.
The breakthrough in gene editing technology offers hope for protecting poultry from bird flu outbreaks. By editing the ANP32A gene, scientists have demonstrated the potential to create chickens that are resistant to the virus. However, further research is needed to address limitations and ensure the technique does not inadvertently increase the virus’s ability to infect other species. While regulatory hurdles remain, the progress made in gene editing provides a more precise and controlled approach to enhancing disease resistance in animals.