Frankenchicken?! Not Quite. Not At All.

When we think about genetic engineering, we think about plants – corn, soybean, cotton, and a few others. We rarely consider that livestock are candidates for genetic engineering, and while this may seem frightening, it holds a great deal of potential in combatting diseases in the livestock industry. This isn’t your average “Frankenchicken.”

Earlier this year, North America faced a devastating outbreak of the avian flu. In the United States, over 48 million birds were euthanized in 223 separate incidents. The predominant strain during this outbreak was H5N8, which doesn’t pose a threat to humans, but has proven devastating for the poultry industry across the globe. Officials in the United States confirm the development of a vaccine to combat the avian flu, but scientists at the University of Cambridge have a better idea.

Normally, the avian flu virus replicates using an enzyme called a polymerase. The enzyme seeks out a specific sequence in the virus’ genome, attaches to it, and duplicates it. Each new virus is squeezed out of the host cell and finds a new cell to infect. This happens over and over and over again. Eventually, the bird begins exhibiting clinical signs and, eventually, it dies, having also spread the virus to other birds.

There is a specific breed of hens that was engineered to halt the spread of the avian flu virus – the ISA Brown layer. The ISA Brown layer was developed by Hendrix Genetics, a prominent player in the wacky world of laying hen genetics. It’s marketed as one of the most efficient laying hens in the industry and boasts an average egg weight of 69.2 grams. None of this means much to the non-farmer, and that’s fine. We’re not concerned with this bird’s production data.

The novel laying hen has a sequence of DNA that acts as a decoy for the polymerase enzyme mentioned earlier. On its own, this sequence remains inert, but when infected with the avian flu, this sequence tricks the polymerase enzyme – the enzyme replicates the decoy, not the virus. The bird still dies, but the virus does not spread, because it’s never replicated.

The next step is developing this bird commercially. While the ISA Brown layer has widespread use across North America, expanding this novel attribute to broilers, turkeys, and other types of poultry will take time. As with all genetically modified organisms, what may appear successful in the laboratory may not be successful in a commercial barn.

That being said, this is one kind of “Frankenchicken” that we should be very “eggscited” about.



  1. GMO chicken could solve the avian flu crisis, saving millions of birds, if only if … – The Genetic Literacy Project
  2. Update on Avian Influenza Findings – United States Department of Agriculture – APHIS 
  3. Want a Bird Flu-Free Bird? Consider Breeding Resistant Birds – National Geographic
  4. ISA Brown Commercial Stock