£1.3m to breed campy-resistant chickens

A research project is about to be launched at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, with the aim of breeding campylobacter-resistant chickens.

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and poultry breeding company Aviagen, the £1.3m project is part of a wider government action plan, aimed at reducing the incidence of food poisoning associated with the bacteria.

“Campylobacter is responsible for more than 300,000 cases of food poisoning a year in England and Wales and is estimated to cost the UK economy up to £600m a year,” said a BBSRC spokesman. “While good hygiene and thorough cooking kills the bug, preventing it entering the food chain in the first instance would dramatically reduce the risk of infection.”

To this end, BBSRC and Aviagen have awarded Scottish researchers £1.3m to map the genes responsible for resistance to the bug, with a view to being able to breed campylobacter-resistant birds.

Chickens are able to tolerate relatively large amounts of campylobacter in their guts without harm, which allows the bacteria to thrive. However, some breeds are able to naturally resist the bacteria’s colonisation – so reducing the chances of it entering the food chain.

“We already know from our previous work with non-commercial birds that some chickens are able to reduce the levels of bacterium in their guts by 10,000-fold relative to other breeds,” said Prof Peter Kaiser, who will lead the three-year study. “We have already identified four regions of the genome that contribute to this resistance. This new research programme should allow us to locate the actual genes responsible for this increased resistance.

“Our work offers the potential to develop a quick and targeted approach to breeding poultry that are more resistant to campylobacter colonisation and so prevent it from entering the food chain.”

Jim McAdam, Aviagen’s UK breeding programme director, said that, while steps can be taken to reduce the chances of campylobacter reaching peoples’ plates, this research aimed to get to the very heart of the problem, by reducing the amount of the bug in the poultry population in the first place.

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