When placed in ultraviolet light, the beaks and feet of these genetically engineered chicken glow neon green, to help researchers tell them apart from the other birds. But glow-in-the-dark features aren't the traits these birds are being breed for, but rather the ability to help fight the spread of avian bird flu.
Beginning in December 2014 and continuing into early this year, outbreaks of bird flu were reported in 21 states in U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more outbreaks may occur in the coming fall and winter. Wild birds can infect domestic flocks that come into contact with their feathers or droppings. Although there are no reported cases of birds infecting humans, there have been cases of people getting sick from bird flu in Africa and Asia, according to the World Health Organization.
Bird flu is also a huge financial threat. According to the University of Cambridge, over 300 million poultry birds have been destroyed as a result of outbreaks since 2003.
Researchers in the UK are using genetic engineering to fight this epidemic. They inject a “decoy” gene into the yokes of freshly laid eggs, along with the fluorescent protein that will make the chickens glow. The egg will produce a chick with both of these traits. The “decoy” gene prevents the virus from spreading, by preventing it from replicating, while the fluorescent protein helps researchers tell the GMO chickens apart from regular ones.
In one experiment, Researchers at the Roslin Institute at The University of Edinburgh exposed chickens with the “decoy” gene to infected chickens, along with unaffected non-engineered chickens. They found that the GMO chickens were more resistant to the disease, although they did eventually get sick. And they’ve found that the engineered chickens don’t spread the disease. Researchers are continuing to work towards birds that are altogether resistant to the flu.
According to the Roslin Institute, “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.”
However, if the story of GMO salmon is any indicator, these chickens are a long way from the marketplace or the dinner table. (Reuters notes that if these chickens are ever commercialized, they won’t glow in the dark.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still sitting on the approval of a genetically modified salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies more than a decade ago, and many consumers and retailers have expressed resistance to genetically-engineered animals intended for human consumption.