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Iowa State University researchers strive to improve poultry health in Africa

Feed the Future Innovation Lab team members currently or formerly associated with Iowa State's Department of Animal Science. (Image source: Iowa State University)

As part of an international effort to improve the health of small poultry flocks of indigenous chickens, researchers from the Iowa State University have been working on a 10-year project by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, that is aimed at addressing the threats that disease and infections pose to the region’s poultry sector 

One of the most devastating poultry diseases includes the Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV). According to Susan Lamont, distinguished professor in the Department of Animal Science and one of the leads on the research team, this disease does not appear to be a major threat to the chickens of the region, mainly due to the availability of a vaccine. However, vaccination programmes are not practical to implement in much of Africa due to the likeliness of small numbers of chickens being scattered, thereby resulting in their intermingling with other chickens and fowl. 

As stated in a report by the Iowa State University, in order to ensure that the project has the best chance of bringing meaningful impacts to local smallholder farmers, several unique approaches were adopted. These included a series of initial focus groups to gain a sense of what was important to smallholders of poultry and what interventions they would be most likely to find usable. Moreover, to keep things more relatable to real life, the scientists studied birds exposed to disease in natural situations, rather than in more controlled experimental environments. 

A recent paper by the team which forms the Feed the Future Innovation Lab, was published in the World’s Poultry Science journal. The study carried out focuses primarily on genetic and molecular studies of the chickens and their response to NDV and extreme heat, from the cellular level to bodily systems. 

From their findings, the researchers found that a regional breed, indigenous to the Fayoum region of Egypt, are relatively more resistant to infection from many pathogens and to heat compared to a commercial Leghorn line derived from chickens in the US. They also identified several genes as important candidates for their influence on NDV viral replication

In addition, researchers were also able to learn a lot about the genetics of the Newcastle disease virus and the strains prevalent in the different poultry-producing regions studied. This information will surely be useful for the development of more effective methods to fight the disease in the future. 

“This work is especially important to the lives of women,” Lamont noted. “In Africa, poultry is generally managed by women, which gives them more access to good nutrition for their families and economic opportunities when they can sell eggs and meat birds.”