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A Newly Discovered and Sequenced Turkey Disease Virus

By Sharon Durham
October 11, 2001

A never-before-described virus that infects young turkeys has been identified and its sequence deciphered by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Athens, Ga. The virus, which has caused problems for southeastern poultry producers since the early 1990s, is now circulating throughout the United States.

The virus is associated with Poult Enteritis Mortality Syndrome (PEMS), a highly infectious, transmissible disease of young turkeys that causes severe diarrhea, stunted growth and high death rates in young flocks. PEMS is also associated with lifelong changes to the turkey immune system and leaves the birds highly susceptible to other infectious agents.

ARS scientist Stacey Schultz-Cherry’s unit at the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens isolated the avian disease-causing organism, called an astrovirus, a small RNA virus. Scientists isolated this small virus--also associated with diarrhea outbreaks in humans and other animals--from turkey poults infected with PEMS. Schultz-Cherry’s group has devised diagnostic tests and will now focus on how the virus causes disease and how it affects the immune response. This information may lead the way to vaccines for the emerging disease.

This particular astrovirus is very stable and resistant to disinfection, so the research results could also be used to develop kits to test for virus present in poultry houses that have been cleaned. Currently, poult producers can only rely on proper disinfection and biosecurity procedures to prevent infection of their flocks.

A patent on the sequence was filed in July 2001, and the sequence is available for licensing. Diagnostic companies could utilize the technology to make testing kits available to turkey producers. PEMS outbreaks have cost the turkey industry millions of dollars in annual losses.

The next step for the researchers is to determine the reservoir of this astrovirus and to find out if the virus can move from turkeys to other bird species.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's principal scientific research agency.