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 Improving Chicken Immunity

In the wake of the double crisis in the red meat industry, as a result of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, the poultry industry has recently gained a lot of ground. However, if this trend is to be maintained, solutions must be found to the chicken’s susceptibility to disease. Under FP5, the EC’s ‘CHICKEN IMAGE’ project has taken up the challenge of enhancing the chicken’s immune defences, and subsequently product quality, by creating a new generation of tools for avian immunology.

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Chicken: an important protein source

Poultry meat is not only a tasty, healthy alternative to red meat, but it is also the second most important source of animal proteins (after pigs) in the world. In 2001, 68.6 million tonnes of poultry meat was produced globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This was roughly 28% of the total amount of meat produced during that year. The importance of chickens is further illustrated by the fact that overall poultry meat consumption in the developed world reached 23.7 kg per capita in 2000, representing 30% of total meat consumption, and rose by 8% in the EU (2001). This latest gain in market share was, indeed, due to the combined crisis of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease which hit Europe during that year.
Unfortunately, chicken are very sensitive to a range of diseases, such as coccidiosis, Newcastle disease, salmonella, and campylobacter infections. Virulent pathogens can easily ruin a farm specialising in chicken rearing. However, the feedstuffs play a key role here: modifications in poultry feeding are currently having disastrous repercussions. Consequently, improving the quality of food and derivative products will be a major challenge this century.

The IMAGE project

Improving the chicken immune system is thus a major target for further veterinary research. Hence, the ‘CHICKEN IMAGE’ project has received funding under the Fifth Framework Programme (QLK5-1999-01591). This project aims to create a new generation of tools for avian immunology by gathering all the relevant information. It is intended to build a database of expression profiles for a large set of chicken genes which can be expressed as follows:

  • In various types of immune tissues, such as the T cells;
  • At different stages of development of the various diseases;
  • With a significant function in the regulation of both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system.

Increased understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the immune response will enable researchers to develop improved feedstuffs and more effective treatments. This data resource will be unique, representing a comprehensive knowledge-base of great importance. This knowledge will contribute towards decreasing the losses of flocks through deadly diseases and will enhance product quality. Hence, all future developments based on this knowledge will contribute to maintaining the second most important protein resource we are relying on: chickens.
Already, several immunity genes have been identified during the first year of the project.


Rima Zoorob
CNRS – ERS 1984
Villejuif, FR
Tel: +33 1 49 58 35 00

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