Manipulated bacteria should protect chickens from bird flu

As the bird flu tears through the Netherlands, twelve Groningen students are working on a way to protect poultry as part of their entrance in international research competition iGEM. They want to make bacteria that occur naturally in the chickens’ lungs to start producing antibodies against the flu virus.

Two weeks ago, approximately 38,000 chickens had to be culled in the Groningen town of Oldekerk, and last Wednesday saw no fewer than 200,000 birds culled in Nieuw-Weerdinge in Drenthe. One after the other, poultry farms have been struck by bird flu during what’s proved to be the biggest outbreak of the disease ever. 

Biology students Mink and Yasmin’s study has perfect timing. They’re participating in the largest international student competition for genetic manipulation in the world: iGEM. They’re representing the UG in the competition where they’ll be facing 360 teams from other research universities and universities of applied sciences. They’re working on a drug that would curb the spread of bird flu by altering DNA.


‘For years, bird flu mainly occurred during autumn and winter’, says biomolecular sciences student Mink. But the disease was going around during March of this year. ‘It was even an issue during the summer, which is usually flu-free’, he says. While it used to be possible to curb flu outbreaks by culling the animals, that’s no longer proved to be effective.

Not only does this lead to many dead animals, it’s also potentially dangerous. ‘We run the risk of the virus mutating and jumping to people, just like the coronavirus’, says Yasmin. ‘But even now, the virus is almost always fatal to chickens. There is no simple, ready-made solution to fight this flu.’

The obvious answer would be vaccination, but vaccinated chickens are banned from being transported or slaughtered in Europe, since there is no way to distinguish them from diseased chickens. On top of that, a large-scale vaccination campaign would be cost-prohibitive. As such, the iGEM team had to find a solution that would protect chickens and ensure the virus wasn’t in their systems.


‘A few months ago, we came across this study on nanobodies’, says Mink. Nanobodies are molecules that can disable cells as well as viruses. It sounded promising, so they decided to talk to the researcher. Mink: ‘He discovered that these nanobodies bond to cancer cells. He projected that he would be able to remove 80 percent of a tumour in one go. It sounded incredibly promising and was still in its early stages. The medical industry hadn’t picked up on it yet.’

Flu viruses enter the body through the lungs. So, the iGEM team figured, that’s where the nanobodies need to be to work. The team had figured out earlier that a chicken’s lungs also contain bacteria. Mink: ‘We thought: what if we can change that bacterium so it’ll start producing the nanobody while it’s in the lungs? That would give us a nanobody factory of sorts, right in the location where we need it. The same bacteria is found in the lungs of other birds, so we’d be able to use it there, as well.’

Kill switch

One thorny issue remains, however: in a process called genetic modification, the bacteria are changed to produce nanobodies. Outside the lungs of chickens, these changed bacteria can actually cause damage, which means there are strict rules governing their use. The bacterium needs to undergo a second change that will stop it surviving outside the environment of warm and dark chicken lungs, Mink explains. ‘We created a kind of kill switch that means the bacterium dies when it’s exposed to too much light, or at temperatures below 41 degrees Celsius.’

The iGEM finale will be held in Paris from October 26 to 28. The team has a reputation to maintain: Groningen has consistently been in the top ten since 2012. Yasmin and Mink think they stand a good chance of winning. ‘There are around forty teams that are doing something with cancer, but we’re the only one battling bird flu. So not only are we pretty solid in terms of originality, we’re also good when it comes to work ethic. We’ve been working for months and even kept going during the summer holidays.’ 



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