Scientist seeks poultry health breakthrough by studying chicken droppings

Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD student at Quadram Institute Bioscience

Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD student researching chicken microbiomes at Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich - Credit: Bushra Abu-Helil

A Norwich researcher is exploring the microbiome of chickens to find simpler ways to monitor poultry health and tackle diseases like bird flu - by studying their droppings.

Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD student researching chicken microbiomes at Quadram Institute Bioscience on the Norwich Research Park.

Working with commercial farms, she is studying bird faeces to find "biomarkers" which could indicate potential health issues or disease risks, and inform choices about breeding programmes or veterinary action.

She said this could improve flock health and potentially improving resilience to infections such as avian influenza - a major concern to East Anglia's poultry industry as it emerges from the UK's biggest bird flu outbreak.

And she also hopes to develop a rapid test which farmers can use to discover this valuable information for themselves.

"I am a zoologist, so I see this from a different perspective," she said. "I am not a farmer, I am not a vet, I am purely interested in animals, I am not just thinking about meat or egg production.

"So for me what is really important is finding ways to monitor poultry health and welfare, but in a way that really minimises loss and minimises the stress that we cause to the animal.

"That is why I am so interested in finding ways farmers can monitor that just by using the birds' faeces.

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"If we can find some kind of 'bio-marker', a naturally occurring gene or a compound or even a micro-organism such as a particular bacterial strain, that could indicate to us the health and welfare of an animal, or if it is particularly susceptible to disease.

"The 'golden egg' for me would be something like an indicator strip that you would dip into a solution to get an indication of how diverse a microbiome is, how different are the bacteria you are getting.

"At the moment we can look at that through things like DNA extraction and sequencing, which requires a level of expertise, but to be able to simplify what I am doing in the lab, something that could take weeks and months to get results from, and get that into a 10-minute kit that farmers could do on-site, would be superb."

The researcher said diverse microbiomes had been shown to improve immune development, so could be used to build resistance to bird flu.

"We already know with humans that people's microbiome might influence how much they respond to a vaccine, for example - and it is the same with animals as well.

"So actually we might be able to utilise the microbiome in order for birds to have better susceptibility for the uptake of a vaccine, or resistance to avian influenza."

Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD student researching chicken microbiomes at Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich

Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD student researching chicken microbiomes at Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich - Credit: Bushra Abu-Helil