Genetically modified peas that can protect chickens against a common infection have been successful in trials, say scientists.
The plants, which protected the chickens from a parasite called Eimeria, which costs the poultry industry US$2.4 billion a year, were developed by Sergey Kipriyanov and colleagues at Novoplant GmbH, a German plant biotechnology company.
Scientists inserted a gene that caused the plants to produce an antibody that stops the parasite invading the chicken's gut cells.
The peas can be ground into flour and then added to cheap chicken fodder, making the approach suitable for rural poultry farming in developing countries, the researchers say.
Even in chickens infected with high doses of the parasite GM pea flour reduced infections, say the researchers.
"This work demonstrates for the first time the feasibility of using antibody-expressing GM crop seeds to control infectious diseases," Kipriyanov told SciDev.Net.
Previous work has shown that plants can be engineered to trigger chickens to produce their own antibodies against diseases, but the scientists say this is the first time that crops have been altered to produce antibodies themselves.
Kipriyanov says that immunisation through food is easier than traditional methods such as injections. In addition, the method protects the chickens immediately.
He says his team is working on increasing the level of antibodies in the peas and improving their stability in the chickens' guts.
"We will need probably 3–5 years for propagating GM pea plants, producing sufficient amounts of seeds and performing large-scale animal trials," says Kipriyanov.
Mario Pezzotti, a plant geneticist at the University of Verona, Italy, told SciDev.Net: "[The research] is a great example of how plants — which need only inexpensive inputs like sunlight, water and nutrients to grow — can be exploited".
He adds that the antibody's stability in the peas eliminates the need to keep them cold during transport and storage, "therefore tremendously cutting production costs to levels affordable for developing countries".
Mohammed Ahmed Hamoud, a plant molecular biotechnologist at Tanta University, Egypt, cautiously welcomes the news.
"To prevent negative health, environmental and socioeconomic impacts, the GM pea plant must be genetically isolated using new male sterile lines that don't produce pollen and cultivated in dedicated land away from food crops," he says.
The research was published last month (September) in BMC Biotechnology.
BMC Biotechnology doi 10.1186/1472-6750-9-79 (2009)