In a typical year 500 million people will get the flu and more than 500,000 will die from the virus. During pandemics, the loss of life can be even more devastating. For example, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed from 40 to 50 million people causing global political, social and economic problems. So it’s no wonder that scientists worldwide work on the annual vaccines to protect us, and we see reminders to get our flu shots on television and every pharmacy and drugstore we pass. Unfortunately, influenza vaccines are only effective on 70 to 80% of the people who get them, and because we never know for sure which flu is going to be that winter’s problem, we don’t always make up the correct vaccine. This led scientists to think of new ways to prevent the spread of influenza viruses, and that’s where the glow-in-the-dark chickens come in.
That the chick in this picture has glowing feet and a beak isn’t really what makes it so important to us. That’s just a marker that researchers at the Roslin Institute and the University of Cambridge use to make sure they can tell one bird from the next in their research. What makes this chick important is that it has a small genetic modification that prevents it from spreading the flu to any other bird or person.
To understand how this works, we first need to understand how a virus makes us sick. Basically, as you can see in the video below, a virus enters one of our cells, where it replicates its own DNA, and then it sends that DNA out of the cell and into others to continue replicating. As it does this, and other healthy cells fight back, we begin to experience all those symptoms that we associate with the flu.
In the case of the genetically modified chickens, researchers inserted a “decoy” molecule that mimics the region of the flu virus genome that allows it to replicate. This molecule binds to an enzyme in the flu virus that prevents it from replicating. Though the genetically modified chicken still gets the flu, and will still die, it can’t transmit the virus to others. Thus, the virus stalls and dies without harming all the chickens, or without getting the chance to adapt so that it can possibly infect people.
The really great thing about this genetic decoy is that it works against all strains of avian flu so we won’t have to adapt a new vaccine every year. According to researchers working on this project it is also a significant first step toward developing chickens that are completely resistant to avian flu. Last, the technology wouldn’t be required everywhere. Scientists suggest its best use would be in countries where the flu is most common or “endemic” such as Southeast Asia, China and parts of Africa where bird flu reduces food and economic security and increases the chances for human infection. It’s possible that in the future the flu could be stopped at it’s source, and perhaps ultimately would not spread across the globe every winter, ending influenza’s reign of sniffling, coughing, achy heads, and fever.
Are GM Chickens Safe to Eat?
Scientists have found nothing to suggest that these chickens would be unsafe in any way. They have found no differences in their development, health or growth from their non-GM brothers and sisters. The only difference is that they can’t transmit the flu to other chickens. Further they say, “The nature of the genetic modification is such that it is extremely unlikely that it could have any negative effects on people consuming the chickens or their eggs.”
They also note that “Ultimately the adoption of such animals for consumption in the UK is an issue that the relevant authorities would need to consider in consultation with the public. We stress that these particular chickens are for research purposes only and are not intended for consumption. They have enabled us to confirm that the transgene is effective and so it is likely to be useful in future development of influenza resistant chickens. Disease resistance is clearly a beneficial characteristic for animal welfare and public health. The public’s awareness of the global threat of influenza virus is high. We hope that examples that demonstrate clear consumer benefits with no inherent risk will encourage constructive debate about the potential of GM food in the future.”
The scientists are continuing their research with a goal of making birds completely resistant to influenza infection rather than just blocking bird-to-bird transmission.
And with that, I’m off to get my flu shot!