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Chicks atop a picture of a genetic map of a chicken. Link to photo information
Chicks atop a picture of a genetic map of a chicken. Click the image for more information about it.

Researchers Challenge Poultry Pathogens

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
December 7, 2004

An Agricultural Research Service immunologist has pioneered a novel technology that will help develop nonchemical methods to control diseases that affect poultry. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) chief scientific research agency.

Whether baked, broiled or barbecued, poultry is an important source of dietary protein. But its production has become increasingly threatened by a disease called coccidiosis, which costs the U.S. poultry industry about $700 million annually. Coccidiosis is caused by multiple strains of Eimeria, a genus of tiny, one-celled parasites that infect the birds' intestines.

Hyun S. Lillehoj, with ARS' Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., led a team of ARS researchers in completing the first chicken intestinal genomics database library. The new resource contains gene sequences that will be used to pursue genomics-based control strategies to counter major poultry diseases.

The Eimeria parasite makes a protein, or antigen, that helps it pry its way into a chicken host's cells. But the antigen also evokes an attack response from the chicken's immune system. The new database will allow scientists to exploit the attack response to outsmart and disrupt Eimeria's ability to colonize and inflict intestinal damage.

Lillehoj's team will conduct additional research funded by a grant from the National Research Initiative. The NRI is administered by USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The team will use the new database to create microarray gene chips--enclosed glass slides--that hold about 10,000 genes from the chicken's intestinal cells.

As a research tool, the gene chips will help the scientists identify the specific genes that help chickens fight off infections by pathogens such as Eimeria, Salmonella or E. coli.

Read more about this research in this month's issue of Agricultural Research magazine.