News - November 3, 2011

Spotting bird flu on the fly

Field workers will now be able to establish the presence of the dangerous form of bird flu among migrating birds, using ‘FTA cards’. This method offers a very suitable way of monitoring birds in remote areas, says Wageningen PhD scholar Robert Kraus.

Along with trade and transport, migrating birds play a major role in the spreading of highly pathogenic avian influenza. There is already an international programme that checks birds on their migration routes (from Asia to Europe, for example) for the presence of the virus. This is done using a virological test, which means the viruses have to be transported intact to a laboratory in a freezer. This test requires strict security regulations and a competent laboratory in the vicinity: facilities which are not available on remote parts of the migration routes.

Kraus's new test works with FTA cards, which are special filter papers that can identify the genetic information from the RNA in, for example, bird droppings. The method has been used for biotechnological analyses for fifteen years, but has not yet been used to track down bird flu. The advantage of the method is that the flu virus becomes inactive and the material can then be transported at room temperature. This is ideal for monitoring and early warning of bird flu in less developed countries.

Kraus tested the FTA paper with Swedish colleagues in a bird observatory in Sweden and concluded that the method reliably establishes the bird flu type in the lab. The method is somewhat less sensitive than the standard method, says Kraus, but is an acceptable supplementary method in international monitoring programmes. These programmes do not yet use the FTA (Flinders Technology Associates) method.

Kraus published his results in a video report in the online magazine Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE). This makes him the first Wageningen researcher to make a video about his research for this online journal. For JoVE, the aim of the videos is to increase the reproducibility and the transparency of scientific research. Until recently Kraus worked at the Resource Ecology group in Wageningen, but he now works for the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. He is due to receive his PhD for his research in December.