Avian Influenza Impacts Fall Classes and Research at Iowa State University

Cameron Hall, assistant poultry farm manager, uses a tire wash station at the Iowa State University Poultry Research and Teaching Unit. Cleaning and disinfecting tires is one precaution against avian influenza.

AMES, Iowa — This fall semester nearly 500 Iowa State University students will be affected by the cancellation of classes at the university’s poultry teaching and research farm due to the threat of a resurgence of avian influenza.

The Department of Animal Science is minimizing traffic to the facility located south of campus to safeguard a flock of rare chickens used for research. It is feared that this year’s outbreak of avian influenza may be repeated this fall when wild birds, which carry the disease, start migrating.

“We’ll be relying mostly on videos for teaching students about poultry nutrition, reproduction and anatomy and physiology. It’s the best way to teach as a temporary fix,” said Jodi Sterle, the Eldred and Donna Harman Professor for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Department of Animal Science. Sterle serves as the department’s teaching section leader.

Sterle stressed the change is not a human health issue. It is an issue of trying to minimize the risk that people accidently bring the virus to the farm.

One study estimates the outbreak has cost the Iowa economy $1.2 billion and 8,500 jobs. Beginning in April, avian influenza was found at 77 poultry operations in Iowa, the nation’s leader in egg production. Thirty-four million birds were euthanized from 22 commercial egg production flocks, 13 pullet flocks, 35 commercial turkey flocks, one breeding flock and six backyard flocks.

Established in 1963, ISU Poultry Research and Teaching Unit is located on 11 acres south of the main campus. It is part of a teaching farm complex that also includes beef, sheep and swine teaching units. The poultry farm is used for teaching and research with broilers, layers, turkeys and other avian species.

At least six courses have been taught annually at the site. ISU scientists in animal science and veterinary medicine, USDA National Animal Disease Center scientists and collaborating researchers from other universities and federal labs use the poultry lines at the facility for their work.

As an older facility, the poultry science farm lacks the latest biosecurity facilities. But Sterle said classes would have been cancelled even if it were a modern poultry operation.

“With biosecurity for the farm and protecting the long-established poultry lines housed there, we just won’t risk it,” she said.

Cancelling classes at the poultry farm was a difficult decision to make, but Sterle called the situation “a teachable moment.”

“This is the industry and this is the situation we face,” she said. “We’ll use this issue to examine foreign animal diseases, biosecurity, traffic and people flow in facilities, why we house animals in buildings, animal welfare and economics. It all goes into making a teachable moment in the classroom.”

On the research side, avian influenza is a significant concern for a couple reasons, said Susan Lamont, a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences and an animal science professor who is in charge of genetics research at the poultry farm.

“One is the fact that this virus seems much more infectious than any other previous version and has very high pathology levels,” Lamont said. “The state of Iowa has lost nearly half of its domestic poultry.”

“Second, Iowa State’s poultry genetics program consists of primarily unique lines,” Lamont said. “We are the sole source for them. Many of the lines were developed over decades. The oldest of our specialized research lines is 90 years old, established in 1925. So if we had a positive test for avian influenza, we would stand to lose a very valuable scientific resource.”

As a precaution, Lamont has sent some chickens to a site maintained by the College of Veterinary Medicine. This site has a higher level of biosecurity and is separated from the poultry farm, affording a greater degree of safety.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognized the value of the ISU poultry flock as an essential genetic resource for agriculture. To protect the poultry lines, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation collected and froze semen from the ISU inbred lines. The samples are stored in a facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Although the chickens’ genetic material has been collected and stored, it is not a perfect solution, Lamont said.

“One of the challenges with poultry is that the germplasm that carries genetic material from one generation to the next is not as easy to manipulate or preserve as it is with mammals,” she said. “The physiology of birds is different. We just don’t achieve the same level of efficiency with preservation technologies.”

Using poultry semen that has been frozen does not generate many live offspring, Lamont said. “And you only have one-half of the genetic equation.”

Lamont’s research in poultry immunogenetics and poultry breeding focuses on the molecular genetics of poultry immunology, disease resistance, skeletal composition, body composition and meat quality.