Published on 05/25/11

Researchers work to develop disease-resistant livestock

By J. Faith Peppers

A team of researchers from the University of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to develop a new technology to breed chickens resistant to Newcastle Virus.

“Disease and death in livestock is a serious problem, particularly in underdeveloped countries,” said Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar Steve Stice, an animal and dairy professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, there are more than 17 billion chickens, and 90 percent of smallholder farmers raise chickens. Poultry is an important source of income and protein for many of these farmers and their families. Newcastle Virus kills about one-quarter of the chickens in sub-Saharan Africa every year, and mortality within a flock can reach 100 percent.

“In those areas, veterinary care is minimal and livestock plays a large role not only as a key source of food, but also is a large share of their savings, income, credit, insurance, loans, gifts and investments,” Stice said. “That makes disease and death in livestock a critical problem.”

“In the last 30 years, access to animal health services, vaccines and medicines has decreased significantly in Africa,” said Franklin West, a CAES animal and dairy science assistant professor and co-investigator leading the project with Stice. “As a result, at least 25 percent of the livestock in many African countries die every year compared to less than 5 percent in developed countries.”

Losing even a few animals on a small family farm, the most common type of farm in developing countries, can have long-lasting repercussions on family stability, health and the ability to provide for children.

Seeking solutions

The University of Georgia Research Foundation received nearly $1.6 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the researchers to search for ways to make poultry naturally resistant to Newcastle disease.

The team will investigate applying a process called cellular adaptive resistance, which uses stem cells to create disease resistance in animals. The approach is a direct offshoot of previous work by Stice and West that produced pigs from stem cells using a similar process.

“We want to provide a new way to create disease-resistant animals using new technologies to combat disease problems,” Stice said. “This process will produce animals with natural resistance to specific diseases that will need less veterinary care and will significantly reduce livestock mortalities.”

Stice and West are conducting this research along with UGA poultry scientist Robert Beckstead and Claudio Alfonso, a researcher at the USDA Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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