Remember bird flu? Avian influenza has captured more than its fair share of headlines since its first appearance in Hong Kong in 1997, partly because the H5N1 virus can kill, but also due to worries that it might one day mutate into something far deadlier. A group of British researchers believe they may be on to something that could help prevent such a doomsday scenario from occurring, and get this: it involves glow-in-the-dark chickens. Reuters reports:
At Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, scientists are using genetic engineering to try to control bird flu in two ways: by blocking initial infections in egg-laying chickens and preventing birds from transmitting the virus if they become infected. […]
But these promising chickens – injected with a fluorescent protein to distinguish them from normal birds in experiments – won’t likely gatecrash their way into poultry production any time soon. Health regulators around the world have yet to approve any animals bred as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for use in food because of long-standing safety and environmental concerns.
Merely demonstrating that these genetically modified chickens are more bird-flu resistant is just a first step, however. If you thought genetically modified crops generated a green backlash against “unnatural” scientific tinkering, just wait for the wave of doom mongering certain to be unleashed if these GM chickens start moving towards commercialization.
It’s obviously hugely important to make sure these modifications are safe, both for chickens, for humans, and for the environments in which these chickens will live. But while in the course of their opposition to GMOs greens will frequently fall back onto concerns over health and safety (despite the fact that study after study has exonerated the technology), in this case health and safety is precisely the reason to keep pushing forward with this research. Disease is a terrifying aspect of the human condition in large part because it so often seems outside of our control; the possibility of engineering a solution to a deadly virus is therefore exciting, to say the least.
The scientists have used a fluorescent protein in their research to help distinguish the modified chickens, but if commercialized that glow-in-the-dark trait won’t be a part of the new technology. That’s one less thing for Chicken Little environmentalists to lose their heads over.