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Genetic Modification

Bird flu (or avian flu) is a disease caused by the highly infectious H5N1 virus. It has been a major risk to birds since its emergence in 1996, spreading rapidly throughout bird populations.

H5N1 can mutate at a rapid rate and a series of mutations has created a strain of the virus also infectious to humans. As a result, bird flu has killed over 300 people in the last 13 years.

In a recently published study, scientists genetically modified 10 chickens to produce a 'decoy' molecule within their cells. This molecule binds to, and possibly inactivates, the H5N1 replication machinery that allows the virus to multiply so effectively within an infected organism.

When infected with H5N1, these GM chickens did not pass the disease on to any surrounding chickens. Although the infected chickens died, the surrounding chickens were still healthy and did not then pass on the virus further.

The scientists have commented that the technology is still years away from being a possible commercial product. The ethical issues surrounding GM animals are also still to be resolved, as GM animals are not yet licensed for commercial use.

However, if further experiments in this area continue to be successful, these GM chickens could prevent more outbreaks of bird flu and prevent millions more birds being culled to stop the spread of the disease. The technology could also be applied to other animals to prevent the spread of other similar viruses such as H1N1, also known as swine flu.

Watch Genetic Modification to find out more about how scientists can modify genes.