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Professor Helen Sang on the importance of chicken research

Insights into embryo development, genome-editing for chicken health and the importance of engaging with the public.

Scientist Prof Helen Sang
Professor Helen Sang at the Roslin Institute

In this interview, Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska talked with Professor Helen Sang about her work in developing genome engineering techniques for chickens and the applications of this work.

Could you describe your research in a nutshell?

My research primarily focuses on developing genome engineering techniques for chickens and then applying these techniques in different fields of research.

I am interested in a whole range of different applications. For example, one of them is biotechnology, where we have been trying to use a hen’s egg to produce proteins. I am also interested in developmental biology, as the chicken embryo is a great model for understanding how other animals develop. This is very important as it can inform us about how the human embryo develops, as we can’t do experiments on humans. A chicken embryo has specific advantages for this kind of work, it’s quite large and you can manipulate it in the egg, you don’t have to interfere with the embryo in the mother (like in mice). I am also very excited and interested in using these technologies for the genetic improvement of the chicken as an animal we eat. All in all, there are so many different applications!

Why did you decide to start working here at the Institute?

Oh, this was a while back. I was finishing my post-doc on fruit flies here in Edinburgh and I was searching for a permanent post. At the same time The Roslin Institute was looking for someone to bring molecular genetic expertise to poultry. I decided to take the job and I never left.

However, being here for many years, I’ve seen how things change – you may stay in the same place but everything else around you changes, with new opportunities developing constantly.

How do you see the future of your research?

Well, I think I’ll have to retire sometime, unfortunately, as there are some amazing new developments being proposed – such as Dr Mike McGrew’s developments in being able to gene edit a chicken very efficiently. This will make many things that we have dreamed about doing possible: there are really big new opportunities to pursue ideas we have been talking about for many years but haven’t been able to imagine actually achieving before now.

I’m also very interested in being more involved in public engagement to discuss these opportunities. I think it’s something that we should be very proud of here at Roslin, we don’t hide what we are doing and we’re constantly looking for input from others rather than just thinking we know best.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I never had a grand plan to become a scientist from an early age, I never decided as a child to go into research. Biology was what I enjoyed most at school and so I decided to continue that at university. I found that what I liked best at university was genetics and so I decided to specialise in it, continuing onto a PhD and post-docs.

I was also very lucky as I was exposed to science from a young age, my father was a geneticist and my mother had studied biology. Having parents who worked in science made it less scary. I think I kind of took it for granted and that’s why I find the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC) here on campus so important. It gives an opportunity to so many more children who may not have scientists in the family, who are intimidated by science. Hopefully it gives them an understanding that science is something everyone can do, that it is very accessible. I think this is very important.


Could you describe some challenges you’ve faced?

Ah, challenges, yes. When I started out at the Institute there was a long-term commitment to my research, an opportunity that is much less common now. It was still challenging and I think I only just managed to keep it going by having successes frequently enough to be able to convince people it was something worth doing.

Another challenge I have faced throughout my years as a scientist is that poultry do not receive enough investment and attention. Unfortunately, people don’t take chickens seriously!

It’s astonishing. Chickens are hugely important, both nutritionally and economically. And yet, they are largely overlooked. I believe we should be investing much more in research on poultry and various aspects of poultry as they are the most important terrestrial farmed animal.

And lastly, another challenge is that being a scientist you have to be very optimistic. You need to be able to believe that even if something didn’t work, there is an alternative, some other idea, theory or method that may work instead.

Do you have a particular favourite project?

A lot of my research involves collaboration, but I don’t just want to do the technology for others, I want to be involved in the applications. This is really great because I get to work in different fields with different people.

One of the collaborations that I really enjoyed was when I was working on flu resistance in chickens. I was involved in this project for a few years with Dr Laurence Tiley from the Cambridge Veterinary School. Our goal was to express a transgene to inhibit flu replication. It worked to a certain extent, but not enough to fully block flu infection. However, it was very important as it got the concept of using genome engineering for flu resistance out to the public. It helped to inform the public consciousness on genome engineering and increase the understanding of the biology of the flu virus infection in birds. Since then, there are many new opportunities to try and make birds resistant to the flu.

This was probably my favourite project as it was something that had yet to be achieved by genetics. Vaccines are very problematic in farm animals, but if you could make an animal genetically resistant – completely resistant – you would not need to use vaccines and it could be an extremely effective way of controlling a disease.


In this video by Sonal Katyal MSc, Professor Helen Sang tells us about the advantages of genetic modification for animal health.


Related links

GM chickens that don't transmit bird flu

Egg-free surrogate chickens produced in bid to save rare breeds

New grant to improve hen health and productivity

Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre