Feed the Future Innovation Lab reports progress to improve poultry health in Africa

Group in front of wall with pictures
Feed the Future Innovation Lab team members currently or formerly associated with Iowa State's Department of Animal Science, include: back row, Distinguished Professor Jack Dekkers; Melissa Deist (genetics graduate student), Michael Kaiser, research scientist; middle row: Muhammed Walugembe (postdoc); Kaylee Rowland (genetics graduate student; front row: Huaijun Zhou (project director, University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science, and Iowa State alum) and Distinguished Professor Susan Lamont. 

AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University researchers have been part of an international effort to improve the health of small poultry flocks of indigenous types of chickens that provide meat, eggs and income-producing opportunities important for food security in Africa.

This innovative work is important because disease is a serious and growing threat to production, especially the devastating Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV). Biosecurity measures are challenging to put in place in these small production systems where chickens often range free and commingle with other domestic fowl and wild birds. Warming temperatures are also increasing birds’ vulnerability to infection. 

Addressing these challenges has been the focus of a 10-year project by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, a large, multidisciplinary initiative led by scientists at Iowa State, the University of California-Davis and livestock research institutions in Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania. A recent paper the team published in the World’s Poultry Science Journal summarizes project findings and offers some promising opportunities to enhance African poultry production. 

Although serious outbreaks have happened in the U.S., NDV is not a significant threat to chickens here. A vaccination exists for NDV, but vaccination programs are not practical to implement in much of Africa, where small numbers of chickens are more likely to be scattered and where they scavenge and mix with other chickens and fowl, according to Susan Lamont, one of the leads on the research team, along with Jack Dekkers, both distinguished professors in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State.

“This is one of the first research programs specifically focusing on selective breeding and genetic improvement to bolster resilience against poultry diseases through genomic selection,” said Huaijun Zhou, program director for the Innovation Lab, and a professor at the University of California-Davis. “Furthermore, the program is dedicated to enhancing vaccine efficacy and productivities like egg production and growth.” 

The project adopted several unique approaches to assure that the project would have the best chance of bringing meaningful impacts to local smallholder farmers. This included a series of initial focus groups to gain a sense of what was important to smallholders of poultry (such as egg production, growth rate and hardiness), and what interventions they would be most likely to find usable. In addition, to mimic the “real life” of production in the region, the scientists studied birds exposed to disease in natural situations, rather than in more controlled experimental environments. 

Tapiwa Magwaba, Iowa State Animal Science graduate student, examining chicken in Ghana.
Tapiwa Magwaba, Iowa State Animal Science graduate student, examining chicken in Ghana. 

Iowa State’s role focused primarily on genetic and molecular studies of the chickens and their response to NDV and extreme heat, from the cellular level to bodily systems. Among their findings, the researchers verified that a regional breed, indigenous to the Fayoum region of Egypt, are relatively more resistant to infection from many pathogens and to heat compared to a commercial Leghorn line derived from chickens in the U.S. They also identified several genes as important candidates for their influence on NDV viral replication. 

“We have generated a lot of information on indigenous chickens being grown in Africa. Before this, very little was known about them, their genetics and their responses to disease or heat stress,” Dekkers said. “We did not find a ‘silver bullet,’ for a gene that could convey resistance, but the region now has new tools with promise to improve poultry health.”

One of those tools is a low-cost genotyping “platform,” or protocol, that includes a simple blood test that can be used to identify genetic markers for enhanced resilience to ND. 

Researchers also learned a lot about the genetics of the Newcastle disease virus and the strains prevalent in the different poultry-producing regions studied, information that should help develop more effective methods to fight the disease in the future. 

“Another huge legacy of this project has been the extensive capacity we leave behind, including improved research facilities and human resources,” Lamont said. “That includes researchers earning advanced degrees and entering faculty positions where they can carry on this work, and training for many technicians and extension specialists who have been involved.” 

This work is especially important to the lives of women,” Lamont noted. “In Africa, poultry is generally managed by women, which gives them more access to good nutrition for their families and economic opportunities when they can sell eggs and meat birds.” 

Funding for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab came primarily from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The set of diverse collaborators also included Hy-Line International, headquartered in Dallas Center, Iowa. The Iowa State scientists said they plan to seek new support to continue building on this research.