Defra - Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Science Search

Science and Research Projects

Return to Science Search homepage   Return to Project List

Studies leading to sustainable strategies for the control of Mareks disease: Is vaccination responsible for virulence evolution in Mareks disease? - OD0348

Marek`s disease virus is a cancer-causing virus of chickens which causes global losses of $US1 billion/year, considerable animal suffering, and which puts at risk free-range poultry operations and possibly wildlife. In commercial poultry operations, the virus has evolved substantially greater virulence over the last fifty years, with previously unseen hyperpathogenic strains now circulating. These rapidly kill unvaccinated birds. It seems extremely likely that something people did to the MDV-chicken interaction prompted this virus evolution; here we seek to find out what.

This is an important issue for the poultry industry, which needs to assess the likely direction of future MDV virulence and the evolutionary risk associated with alternative control strategies such new vaccines and genetically enhanced chickens. Preventing further virulence evolution, and even reversing it, would be highly desirable on commercial, ethical and possibly wildlife conservation grounds.

While there is little doubt that MDV virulence evolution has occurred, there is very little understanding of which of environmental conditions changed by the poultry industry has been responsible for this evolution. A leading possibility is that it is vaccination. MDV has been subject to vaccination since the late 1960`s. MDV vaccines are not sterilising, so that vaccinated birds transmit virus they acquire from their environment. Such `leaky` vaccination makes viral evolution in immunised populations possible. Theoretical models show that leaky vaccines can prompt virulence increases; the intuition here is that by protecting hosts, vaccines keep virulent pathogens from killing their hosts and therefore themselves. Thus, where they would previously have been removed by natural selection, they can circulate in vaccinated populations. In this proposal, we aim to determine whether this scenario can explain MDV virulence increases.

The experimental work will involve comparisons of the evolutionary fitness of MDV strains of varying virulence in vaccinated and unvaccinated birds, and experimental evolution of viral strains through vaccinated and unvaccinated birds. The subsequent data will enable direct testing of the vaccine hypothesis, and other possible explanations of MDV virulence evolution. This will directly contribute to MDV management, but more broadly, will determine whether there are other diseases - agricultural and human - where widespread use of leaky vaccines could lead to the evolution of
pathogen strains which put the unvaccinated at greater risk.
To provide the experimental data necessary to understand
(i) the evolutionary pressures which made Marek's disease virus more virulent over the second half of last century, and
particularly to test whether vaccination drove this evolution,
(ii) to predict future evolutionary directions for a variety of MDV control measures (risk assessment), and
(iii) to identify the key biological features of the MDV-chicken interaction which have resulted in virulence evolution to
determine whether any other diseases might also increase in virulence in response to vaccination or other control
Specific Objectives
1. Measure the relationship between viral shedding and infectiousness (pathogen fitness);
2. Determine the relationship between viral shedding and viral titres in blood and feathers;
3. Measure and compare fitness profiles for strains of different pathotypes in vaccinated and unvaccinated birds;
4. Compare the virulence of MDV experimentally evolved in vaccinated and unvaccinated hosts.
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2006

To: 2009

Cost: £172,071
Contractor / Funded Organisations
BBSRC Central Office
Animal Diseases              
Animal Health              
Plants and Animals              
Fields of Study
Animal Health