A Poultry Powerhouse

Department: Department of Population Health

College Station Road is a major thoroughfare in Athens, GA. It’s a wide road that runs from the main University of Georgia campus to the more residential east side of town. Driving along in a haze at the start or end of the work day, commuters might not notice the hotbed of agricultural research they speed past. Among the other research centers, just past the aptly named Research Drive and largely concealed by trees, is the University of Georgia’s internationally recognized Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center (PDRC).

Jointly founded in the mid-1950s by the College of Agriculture Experiment Stations and the School of Veterinary Medicine, the PDRC has worked to support the poultry industry in Georgia and around the world. Georgia is the largest producer of broiler chickens in the United States with over 7 billion pounds produced in the state in 2018. The US poultry industry has an economic impact of over $495 billion with about 10% of this impact stemming from Georgia poultry production. All of that to say, poultry production is important to the country and the world—and the state of Georgia plays a large part in its success.

Globally, human populations are growing. And as our numbers increase so must our sources of food. The need for larger quantities of food and major progress in production technologies have resulted in a massive increase in the populations of chickens in the world since the 1960s. This and the rapid onset of the “backyard chicken” of urban and suburban America ultimately translate to a very busy team of researchers, clinicians, and educators at the PDRC.

Today, the PDRC serves multiple functions. As a part of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Population Health, faculty in the PDRC have a hand in the development of students participating in the Master of Avian Medicine (MAM) and the online Master of Avian Health and Medicine (MAHM) programs. Clinicians within the Center also perform diagnostic services for poultry producers in the country and around the world. Whether in the field or in the lab, these members of the team work directly with poultry producers to solve issues plaguing the industry. In the PDRC Diagnostic Lab, faculty and students work collaboratively to develop cutting-edge diagnostics that they then employ to rapidly assess poultry health. And of course, there is the “R” in PDRC: research. The Center houses exceptional scientists devoted to solving issues related to anything from avian health and food safety to uncovering the mysteries of biological mechanisms allowing microbes to thrive.

The PDRC has been successful in many endeavors since its founding: developing vaccines for reovirus, fowl cholera, Newcastle disease, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, and infectious bronchitis virus (IBV); creating new methods for determining the serotypes of IBV and other microbes; and making discoveries that have led to further vaccine and identification methods around the world. PDRC director and head of the Department of Population Health Dr. Mark Jackwood describes the importance of the PDRC, “The Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center is the premier poultry learning, research and diagnostic center and is unique because we bring together outstanding scientists conducting basic and applied research to solve real-world poultry health problems, apply that information to the development of specialized and unique vaccines and diagnostic tests, and transfer that knowledge to the next generation of poultry veterinarians.”

Within the PDRC, there is a distinct diversity of background and training. Microbiologists work with food safety experts; clinical poultry veterinarians work alongside researchers developing the vaccines of tomorrow. It’s this level of collaboration that allows for the success of the center, and it’s all driven by a passion for discovery and support for the birds, producers, and the public.

Drs. Catherine Logue and Nicolle Barbieri come from two different parts of the world, Ireland and Brazil respectively, but they are brought together at the PDRC. Logue began her career as a meat microbiologist studying the microbes of beef cattle and lambs of Ireland. She has since moved around the United States focusing on turkeys in North Dakota, swine in Iowa, and now chickens in Georgia. In that time, her focus has changed, but she’s always kept her true passions at heart. Logue explains, “My interest has always been on the “bugs,” and I’m not particularly attached to any one of them. Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria—I go where work is needed.” Barbieri, on the other hand, began her career by earning her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and slowly shifted into microbiological studies of Avian Pathogenic E. coli (APEC). Speaking with Barbieri, her passion for the subject is almost palpable. She is largely charged by the “why” and “how” of the bacterium. Logue provides a justification for the enjoyment of their work, “No two days are the same. It’s the passion for it that gets us out of bed every day.”

Drs. Daniel Pérez and Naola Ferguson-Noel bring further specialized knowledge to the PDRC. Pérez, originally hailing from Argentina, joined the PDRC in 2015. He specializes in molecular virology and the mechanisms of viral disease in animal models. More explicitly, his research focuses on the molecular aspects that allow the viruses to jump from animal to human hosts, specifically influenza. Beginning his academic career studying biochemistry, Pérez says he “learned just enough about viruses” to follow a path in molecular virology, and as the Caswell S. Eidson Chair in Poultry Medicine and a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator, one could say he has been successful. On working in the PDRC, Pérez says: “I have a sense that I am part of a big family in which each of us contribute to the best of our abilities with new knowledge to better tackle the issues surrounding diseases of poultry, food security and other animal and public health issues.” Ferguson-Noel, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, got her DVM and came to UGA for her MAM expecting to stay 18 months, but she has since earned her PhD in medical microbiology and is in her 21st year in Athens. She is known internationally for her work in diagnostics, epidemiology, pathogenicity, and vaccinology of Mycoplasma, specifically two poultry-infecting species: M. gallisepticum and M. synoviae. Mycoplasmas are unique bacteria lacking cell walls, thus making them resistant to antibiotics targeting cell wall synthesis. What’s worse? Infections with these bacteria are incurable. M. gallisepticum specifically affects production, causing chronic respiratory disease in numerous species of poultry, and it can be transmitted both to other chickens in the flock and to unborn chickens in eggs. Working in the PDRC allows Ferguson-Noel the ability to see these bacteria in the field and in the lab, and she appreciates the diversity and camaraderie of the center: “The PDRC is very diverse; we have many people from different regions of the US and different countries. It is a very friendly and welcoming environment. I think that we genuinely like spending time there and each other’s company and collaboration.”

Drs. Nikki Shariat and Maricarmen García are yet two more researchers in the Center, and, like several of their colleagues, they are not veterinarians. Both are trained and seasoned microbiologists, each with distinct foci. Originally from the UK, Shariat has devoted a large portion of her career to mitigating the spread of and identifying Salmonella, including developing a tool to observe Salmonella and sub-type strains using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, a part of the genome of prokaryotes known as CRISPRs, which act as an immune system for microbes. Speaking on working in food safety, she says, “Working in this field has been eye opening as it applies directly to public health. It reminds me every day that what I do is important.” García shares the sentiment, though her work focuses on the opposite end of the microbiological spectrum: viruses. García has been a member of the PDRC since 1997 and has largely focused on infectious laryngotracheitis virus (ILTV), a herpesvirus that can wreak havoc on unsuspecting poultry populations. Her work is fundamental to the world of poultry health, as she seeks to determine the efficacy of modern ILTV vaccines and perform the research to create the vaccines of tomorrow. The PDRC is the perfect place for this. She explains, “The beauty of this place is that you are not just in the lab working on these organisms, you are also listening. You are constantly hearing real stories from the field and seeing the real problems they face.”

Two sources of field information are Drs. Karen Grogan and Holly Sellers. Grogan brings a wealth of industry knowledge having served in several poultry veterinarian roles in the industry. Through the clinical service provided by the PDRC, she performs outreach and diagnostic service on the thousands of poultry farms in Georgia while teaching students in the MAM program the skills they will need as poultry veterinarians. In addition, she acts as the Graduate Coordinator for the MAM and MAHM programs. She shares her rationale for working in poultry medicine, “I love poultry medicine because it’s pure investigation. In population health, you have to use different veterinary tools to solve the problem compared to dogs and cats. You’re not dealing with one animal—it’s thousands to millions.” Grogan found her way to poultry medicine through her academic interests, much like many of her colleagues. Not so for Sellers. Growing up in Texas, Sellers has been working with poultry since she was 15 years old. Working in a hatchery led to working in the lab, and now she serves as a diagnostic virologist, researcher, and educator. This year, she was named the UGA Inventor of the Year for her work in virology. And, in a way, it was her unique position in the PDRC that made it possible. She explains, “based on samples that come into the lab and the results we obtain, it’s easy to identify shifts or changes in viruses affecting flock health. With this information, we are also able to contribute to development of new vaccines when the need arises.” Her direct contact with the samples allowed her to develop new vaccine strains that will protect populations from these new viruses. And that idea is what inspires her: “There is always an opportunity to provide useful information back to the industry. I know that this information helps.”

In an industry that is growing and will continue to grow worldwide, the PDRC stands out as a leader in its success. Whether examining samples under a microscope or training the world’s next poultry veterinarians, the PDRC faculty, staff, and trainees do not leave a single stone left unturned. The research being performed here today, just like the research performed here for decades, has the potential to change the world for poultry and humans alike. It’s that momentum that keeps the PDRC and its members moving forward.

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