Scientists Use Phylogenetics to Trace the Travels of Bird Flu

Phylogeographer Robert Wallace has Bird Flu on the brain. Like many scientific researchers, when birds and people in Asia started dying from the virus he became concerned about the possibility of a flu pandemic. Biologists know that if the bird flu virus mutates in such a way that it can pass easily between humans, millions of people worldwide could die from the disease. What no one knows for sure is when and where this mutation will take place.

With the help of his colleagues Wallace is studying the factors that contribute to outbreaks of virulent bird flu. They do this by using DNA from different strains of the virus to understand how it has changed and spread over time and distance, an area of research known as Phylogeography. Their hope is that by understanding how and where the virus mutates they can help predict, and maybe even prevent, some of the factors that could contribute to a pandemic strain of this disease. You can read an article about their recent study here.

So far Wallace and his colleagues have been able to piece together the road trip that Bird Flu has taken, and what they've found might make those of us who love chicken nuggets (and sandwiches, and lunch meats) a little uncomfortable. While you can't catch Bird Flu from eating chicken nuggets, it appears that industrial poultry production might be the perfect incubator for virulent strains of this disease. Wallace fears that if large poultry producers don't change their practices, they could eventually produce more than cheap chicken - they could breed a pandemic strain of bird flu.

But how does this work? Well, like lots of things, it's complicated. Generally speaking: because big poultry producers keep large numbers of genetically similar birds in one area, and because the immune systems of these birds are weakened by being crammed into cages and fed a poor diet, and also because new generations of birds are grown-up and shipped out quickly to make room for others, bird flu viruses can easily mutate and spread through the population. In some countries industrial production is happening in close proximity to wild populations of birds or to free-grazing domestic flocks - making it easy for these virulent strains to hitch a ride.

When you add all of this up, it starts to look as though there is a real connection between how we produce the food we eat and the diseases that threaten our health and well being. The question that comes next is how much are we willing to risk for a cheap chicken sandwich?

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