by Ginger Pinholster
When Carla Short's husband died from a heart attack 20 years ago, she suddenly found herself solely responsible for the care of seven chicken houses, 500 acres of crop land and one 4-year-old daughter. "I knew Robert had been raising chickens," she recalled. "That's about all I knew."
As a novice poultry grower, Short's flock could easily have succumbed to infectious bronchitis, a common virus-induced respiratory disease among chickens. Fortunately, she received support and training from Perdue Farms. Like all other leading poultry producers in the region, Perdue relies on agricultural research--including a broad range of biotechnology initiatives at the University of Delaware--to keep flocks healthy, and to ensure a safe, nutritious food supply.
Opening next week, the Charles C. Allen Jr. Biotechnology Laboratory at UD promises even greater benefits for poultry producers and growers like Short, owner of the Alro farm near Georgetown, Del. As the world's premier poultry-disease research facility, the 16,635-square-foot Allen Biotechnology Lab will feature cutting-edge technologies for meeting the challenges that face the poultry industry.
"Researchers at the Allen Biotechnology Lab will develop faster, more accurate techniques for diagnosing diseases that can affect poultry throughout the country," UD President David P. Roselle said. "Our researchers also will synthesize new vaccines for poultry viruses, which are constantly evolving to resist existing treatments. The Allen Biotechnology Lab will allow UD researchers to work in partnership with the Delmarva region's integrated poultry industry, which produced $1.5 billion worth of food in 1995 and currently provides jobs for over 20,000 people."
The Allen Biotechnology Lab will be "a tremendous resource to the region's poultry growers and producers," said John C. Nye, dean of UD's College of Agricultural Sciences. A long list of federal, state and private partners--including Delmarva's poultry and allied industries, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Gov. Tom Carper and poultry producer Charles C. Allen Jr., a 1940 UD alumnus--helped bring the $8 million-plus facility to Delaware.
"Just one serious outbreak of avian influenza could cost roughly $900 million in lost poultry sales--a major blow to Delaware's economy," Biden said. "This facility, literally the finest in the nation, will help researchers analyze and respond to the latest threats, keeping Delaware poultry growers at the forefront of the poultry industry well into the 21st century."
According to Gov. Thomas R. Carper, "Agriculture is Delaware's number one industry--and we intend to keep it that way. Thanks to this state-of-the-art facility that the state has been proud to help finance, researchers will be better equipped to meet the challenges facing this industry--keeping our chickens, and the entire Delaware poultry business, healthy for years to come."
Researchers at UD are already investigating many strains of different poultry viruses--including, for example, chicken anemia, infectious bronchitis, bursal disease, laryngotracheitis, Marek's disease and Newcastle disease. "All of these viruses mutate over time, so we are constantly seeing new strains," explained Jack Gelb Jr., a professor of animal and food sciences. "We have to stay one step ahead of these diseases, in terms of our diagnostic and vaccine research."
That strategy paid off in the winter of 1992, when a new variety of bronchitis swept through Delmarva poultry flocks. By analyzing the sequence of the genetic code contained in samples of the virus, Gelb said, "We were able to determine that it was a mutant strain. A new vaccine was developed to control it."
Vaccines may be developed by manipulating viruses to make them less potent, or by using related viruses derived from another species. The imposter virus can then be used to "trick" the chicken's immune system into fighting the real disease, Gelb said. Researchers at UD are also developing "recombinant" vaccines, which can combat two diseases, using genes derived from two different viruses, said Robin W. Morgan, professor of animal and food sciences.
Morgan's research will help growers prevent major losses resulting from Marek's disease. Ultimately, the work also could serve as "a model for how you might be able to control viral-induced tumors in other species," she said. In the future, fundamental information about the poultry genome should help growers breed healthier, more disease-resistant and nutritious poultry, said Associate Prof. Joan Burnside, who is investigating the immune system of chickens.
Adjacent to UD's dairy farm on the Newark campus, the Allen Biotechnology Lab features specially designed "clean rooms" to ensure the integrity of data generated in a highly controlled environment, said John K. Rosenberger, chair of UD's Department of Animal and Food Sciences. "Monolithic" or seamless floors, mechanical systems that direct air through biological filters, shower facilities and other special features will help protect samples inside the lab, he added.
The Allen Biotechnology Lab will house computer-controlled gene sequencers and a host of other equipment necessary for contemporary research, Rosenberger said.
Researchers in the new facility also will have access to 24 sequencers at the nearby Delaware Technology Park, operated by the DuPont Co.'s Agricultural Products Division, a UD industrial partner. In addition, researchers will be able to use equipment and library resources provided by the University of Delaware Center for Agricultural Biotechnology (UDCAB).