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UK researchers working on GMO chickens that could beat bird flu

10 September 2015

Researchers in the UK, working with advanced technology are helping to defeat the scourge of bird flu with chickens that glow in the dark.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, with support from the UK government, are using genetic engineering to prevent the primary infection of chickens with avian flu and stop the disease from spreading to their offspring.

In what might at first seem to confirm the label that anti-GMO activists had given genetically modified foods as ''Franken food,'' scientists were able to inject chicks with fluorescent protein, which marked them apart from other birds during experiments.

They also injected a ''decoy'' gene into cells in the yolk of a new egg to track the chicken's progress and how vulnerable they were to bird flu.

Scientists were able to detect chicken with the decoy gene due to the injection of  fluorescent protein that made the chickens beaks and feet glow under an ultraviolet light.

The chickens with the decoy gene that were exposed to bird flu had their genetic code trick the virus into replicating the decoy, which would on its part disrupt the viruses' ability to replicate itself.

On exposure of a mix of GMO and normal chickens to the virus, researchers found the GMO chickens were far more resilient and were able to slow onset of infection better than their naturally bred peers.

"Chickens are potential bridging hosts that can enable new strains of flu to be transmitted to humans," said Laurence Tiley, a senior lecturer at Cambridge Infectious Diseases, and also one of the researchers working to develop what are called transgenic chickens, CBS News reported.

"Preventing virus transmission in chickens should reduce the economic impact of the disease and reduce the risk posed to people exposed to the infected birds," he said.

"The genetic modification is a significant first step along the path to developing chickens that are completely resistant to avian flu. These particular birds are only intended for research purposes, not for consumption," he added.

"The decoy mimics an essential part of the flu virus genome that is identical for all strains of influenza A," Tiley said.

Since their breakthrough in 2011, Tiley along with Cambridge University's Jon Lyall and Roslin Institute's Helen Sang had been making progress towards making the birds resistant to the disease.

However, they had to yet produce a bird with complete resistance - a crucial step that would ensure a flock would not get sick.

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