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New Technology for Detecting Turkey Respiratory Virus Now Available

By Sharon Durham
March 21, 2003

Agricultural Research Service scientists have identified an important gene sequence that can help identify and differentiate avian metapneumovirus. This organism is responsible for turkey rhinotracheitis, an upper respiratory illness that causes sneezing, swollen sinuses, nasal discharge and coughing in turkeys.

Microbiologists Bruce Seal and Rene Alvarez of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga., deciphered a segment of the virus' genetic sequence. The sequence, previously unrecorded in the genetic databases, could be used to develop a diagnostic detection kit.

Avian metapneumovirus can be found in turkey and chicken flocks throughout the world, but is frequently reported in turkeys in Minnesota and Europe. The virus is also associated with swollen head syndrome and infectious respiratory disease in chickens outside of the United States.

Although not very virulent by itself, avian metapneumovirus--in combination with other pathogens or Newcastle disease vaccines--can cause severe respiratory disease and weight loss in poultry. Early detection of the metapneumovirus may allow better timing of Newcastle disease virus vaccination to prevent this complication. The metapneumovirus is primarily transmitted by surface contact, which allows producers to reduce its effects by using biocontainment methods such as disinfection and controlled access to poultry houses.

Avian metapneumonvirus causes a high rate of illness in turkeys that are 6-12 weeks of age. Early detection would allow producers to take action and reduce potential losses in this segment of the flock.

A patent application was filed in November 2002 for the unique gene sequence, and the technology is now available for licensing. The sequence may also be useful for developing methods to detect different avian metapneumovirus subtypes.

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