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The influenza A virus pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the armed conflicts of World War 1. Like all other pandemic and seasonal influenza, this virus originated from bird viruses. In fact, avian influenza viruses continually threaten to spark new outbreaks in humans, but pandemics do not occur often. This is because these viruses must undergo several adaptations before they can replicate in and spread between people.
Viruses make new copies of themselves using the molecular machinery of the cells that they invade. The proteins that make up this machinery are often slightly different in different species, and so a virus that can replicate in cells of one species might not be able to do so when it invades a cell from another species. In 2016, researchers discovered that species differences in a cell protein called ANP32A pose a key barrier that avian influenza viruses have to overcome.
Now, Long et al. – including some of the researchers involved in the 2016 study – show that the avian influenza virus cannot replicate in chicken cells that lack ANP32A. Exploring closely related versions of the genes that produce ANP32A and its relative ANP32B in different species revealed the region of the protein that the virus relies on to support its replication. Long et al. speculate that by making a few small changes to the ANP32A gene in chickens, it might be possible to generate a gene-edited chicken that is resilient to influenza.
Close contact with poultry has led to hundreds of cases of ‘bird ‘flu’ in South East Asia, many of which have been fatal. Moreover, if avian influenza viruses mutate further in an infected person, a new pandemic could begin. Stopping influenza viruses from replicating in chickens would prevent people from being exposed to these dangerous viruses, whilst also improving the welfare of the chickens.