Could gene-edited chickens be the answer to avian flu outbreaks?


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is warning against avian flu outbreaks after two commercial poultry farms in Utah and South Dakota registered the highly pathogenic virus last week – the first time since April, AP reported.

ABC News reported the bird flu was registered “in a flock of 47,300 turkeys in Jerauld County, South Dakota, on Oct. 4 and at a farm with 141,800 birds in Utah’s Sanpete County,” citing USDA information.

Since avian influenza is deadly to commercial poultry, to prevent the spreading of the flu among other birds the infected ones are destroyed.

Could gene editing be a solution to avian flu?

With gene editing, scientists are hoping avian influenza can become a thing of the past.

Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists were able to “generate homozygous gene-edited (GE) chickens containing two ANP32A amino acid substitutions that prevent viral polymerase interaction,” according to a paper published on Oct. 10 in Nature.

According to the researchers, the CRISPR method can be used in creating IAV-resistant chickens to help curb the outbreaks.

CRISPR/Cas9 was discovered only about a decade ago. But it already allows scientists to reach exciting breakthroughs quickly, as the method is much more precise than the traditionally used cross-breeding.

“Once the guide RNA sees its match, it can bind and signal to the protein, the nuclease, that it’s time to create a cut. And so, the nuclease is controlled. It will not cut unless it gets that exact match, that will tell it, it has permission to cut,” Regeneron Executive Director Leah Sabin explained on an episode of I am BIO podcast. “And that’s a huge advantage, because, control of where exactly the nuclease cuts, particularly if you’re editing a human genome, is essential.

Why gene editing is important

The global avian influenza outbreak in 2022 resulted in the loss of 58.8 million birds in the United States alone.

Though low, the risk of infection in the general population still exists, stirring fear of a new pandemic among the public. Some zoonotic diseases have been transmitted to humans before, such as COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS. However, it takes several mutations for the virus to put people at risk on a larger scale.

Gene-edited commercial poultry can be one of the steps in addressing such public health threats.

According to British scientists, 9 out of 10 chickens exposed to a mild dosage of avian flu were protected from infection by changing a single gene. More birds became infected at greater dosages, which led scientists to infer that altering many genes would be necessary to create full immunity.

In addition to genetically modified birds, biotech can help tackle these challenges and offer climate solutions.

“We’re going to get to a point where we can manipulate the host genome to make them less susceptible to flu,” bird flu expert Dr. Richard Webby told The New York Times. “That’ll be a win for public health.”

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