Geelong scientists are getting closer to creating the world's first disease-proof animals.
The ground-breaking CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) project is producing genetically modified chickens, using cutting-edge science from the plant world.
It is hoped the CSIRO super-chickens will breed disease-resistant offspring, creating a line of poultry which is immune to the deadly bird flu.
Former CSIRO AAHL director, Martyn Jeggo, who has recently retired and taken up a part-time post as chief of the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, this week said the global implications of the project could not be overstated.
"If this avian influenza stuff works you'll want to be in Geelong. Right now, is the first time we have ever produced a resistant animal to a major disease like this," Dr Jeggo said. "If we can do it for one, why the hell can't we do it for every other disease? This is a proof-of-concept project which is massive, massive, massive."
Dr Jeggo said CSIRO plant scientists had found RNAi molecules could switch off genes in plants to create changes such as bigger ears of corn, stronger stalks or drought-resistance.
This science had laid the groundwork for the chicken project.
"Interfering with RNAs is the real answer to vaccines and disease-resistant animals, cancer, a whole range of important things," Dr Jeggo said. "In CSIRO Plant Industries a lot of the pioneering work has been done for a lot of this ... which is why we (CSIRO AAHL) are now the lead group in producing an influenza-resistant chicken."
CSIRO AAHL head of animal biosecurity research, Dr John Lowenthal, said the project had been made public several years ago but was now at a critical stage.
Interfering with RNAs was a technology that allowed scientists to control or silence particular genes, leading to the production of "transgenic" chickens.
The process happened naturally in animals all the time as part of the body's way of preventing and dealing with viruses but CSIRO scientists were effectively super-charging the process, Dr Lowenthal said.
He said it had not yet been scientifically proven that the chickens in the project were resistant to avian influenza but they had been shown to express RNAi molecules.
"It's a whole complicated process to be able to show that and then being able to breed from them," Dr Lowenthal said. "The next generation of chickens will inherit higher levels of RNAi, which is why they are called GMOs (genetically modified organisms), because it's an inheritable trait ... the capability is passed on."
Dr Jeggo said the research was being funded by the world's biggest broiler producer.Even assuming this GM chicken will solve the broiler producer's problems, how will poor peasants in Cambodia, Vietnam, or Indonesia be able to afford them? And what will happen to the present genetic diversity of domestic and wild birds across the world, if they're left to the mercy of H5N1 and other avian influenzas?
These are not rhetorical questions. I really don't know the answers.