Scientists have developed the first genetically modified (GM) chicken, they claim was engineered to prevent the spread of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, and in the process have sparked a renewed debate
about the development of biotechnology.
The researchers at the Roslin Institute of the University of Edingburgh and at the University of Cambridge bred the transgenic chicken to be unable to transmit avian influenza to other chickens.
Prof Helen Sang, from the Roslin Institute said "the results achieved in this study are very encouraging. Using genetic modification to introduce genetic changes that cannot be achieved by animal breeding demonstrates the potential of GM to improve animal welfare in the poultry industry," she said. "This work could also form the basis for improving economic and food security in many regions of the world where bird flu is a significant problem."
Peter Bradnock from the British Poultry Council said the development should spark a new debate on the use of biotechnology. "The most important thing is that society will have to decide if it wants this kind of technology taken to all farmed animals. We'd need to have this before farmers could think about taking it up," he said.
Prof Helen Sang agreed that the study could be used a starting point for a debate on the use of biotechnology in poultry production.
"Our research is at an early stage and we want to talk about it so that the public, farmers and everybody else will think about it and see the value, or not, so that this opportunity can be discussed and debated," she told Poultry World.
But Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, blamed intensive farming for the spread of disease within poultry flocks and said GM and biotechnology solutions were not the answer.
"Keeping animals cramped together in inhumane factories encourages the spread of diseases such as bird flu and swine flu. This GM fantasy simply tries to cover up for flawed farming practice," he said.
"Viruses are some of the most rapidly evolving organisms on earth, and they could rapidly evolve resistance to the GM chickens. In a race to develop new strains, viruses would get there faster than new breeds of GM chickens could be produced. Viruses could even evolve to become more virulent in response to the GM challenge, posing a greater threat to human health."
Pete Riley of lobby group GM Freeze said practical trials hadn't yet proved the effectiveness of the new traits, with the cost of birds possibly becoming an issue.
"In intensive units the environment is quite different to the lab, and so far this has not been part of the research. In addition, many poorer producers may find the additional cost of the GM birds too high, and stick with conventionally-bred birds," Mr Riley said.
"An alternative approach is to move to more extensive and smaller production systems that supply local needs. Genetic diversity in chickens, not genetic modification of a single breed, is important in reducing the spread of infections, as it is with all farm animals."
* The study, Suppression of Avian Influenza Transmission in Genetically Modified Chickens, was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and has been published in the latest issue of the journal Science.