Bushra Abu-Helil’s research helps Norfolk poultry farmers
08:45 april 23, 2022
Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD candidate in zoology at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. Find out how his work on the microbiome of chickens helps address animal welfare, food sustainability and zoonotic diseases like avian flu.
Every month, those who work at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.
What does your research consist of?
I’m trying to identify new biomarkers for poultry health and welfare. A biomarker is a molecule, gene or natural characteristic that we use to identify disease or stress. I use next-generation DNA sequencing, which determines which genes are present in an environment, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which allows us to observe the magnetic fields around an atom, analyze the bacterial and metabolite composition of chicken faeces. This will allow us to learn more about the gut microbiome.
DNA sequences reveal communities of bacteria, fungi, yeasts and viral particles such as bacteriophages interacting with each other. It’s important for humans to have a balance for healthy development and a strong immune system – and that’s true for animals too. If we see an imbalance – or dysbacteriosis – in a chicken’s gut, this indicates that it is unhealthy or in need of support.
There is an important link between the welfare and health of an animal. Chickens under stress may have a “leaky gut”, in which compounds and bacteria leak through the intestinal lining and circulate through the body.
Why is microbiome research important?
People say you are what you eat – it’s true! Our diet can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Age, sex, genetics and environmental factors all have an effect on the microbiome. This is why it is important to find a biomarker that is robust enough to confidently detect stress or disease under different conditions.
My work is important because it is part of the World Health Organization’s One Health initiative, which seeks to combine human, veterinary and environmental health into one science. However, we shouldn’t just focus on chicken health, and we shouldn’t just focus on chicken meat from a human perspective. Also, we shouldn’t just focus on commercial farming and sustainability. All these elements are linked and must be studied together.
What global problems will the discovery of a biomarker solve?
In addition to providing a good indication of animal welfare, biomarkers can detect outbreaks of pathogens or zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted between humans and animals. The UK is currently experiencing a major outbreak of bird flu in which entire flocks have to be culled, meaning the meat cannot reach the consumer.
In addition to thinking about animals, we need to think about farmers. It’s their livelihood – and their margins are low. We want to make sure the chickens live a good life to keep them as healthy as possible, so farmers can make a living and people can eat the produce.
In research, there is typically a 15-year translation period from lab to real action. But farmers need solutions now. One of the reasons I want to do this at the Quadram Institute is to provide a direct benefit to Norfolk poultry farmers.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?
My first pet was a chicken called Princess Zara Fidget who lived in my aunt’s aviary in Essex. My mother saw my passion for animals and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him that I didn’t want to be a veterinarian. My mother said, “You can be a zoologist.” At seven years old, that was the biggest word I had ever heard. It sounded fantastic.
I graduated in Zoology from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, but struggled with exams and classes. Then I worked for the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Cancer Research UK, where I realized it didn’t matter that I couldn’t write a perfect essay. What matters is that I am passionate, interested and enthusiastic.
What is your role in the Ecological Network for Racial and Ethnic Equality and Diversity (REED)?
I am vice-chair of the REED Ecological Network, a special interest group created in 2020 by the British Ecological Society, inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement, to provide support and mentorship to people of color in ecology and the environment. university.
The agricultural industry is the least diversified sector in the UK, followed by the environmental sector. I work with the likes of the Vincent Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the Natural History Consortium to improve equality and diversity and drive real change within sectors.
What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?
The Quadram Institute has state-of-the-art humanities technologies that I am able to apply to my poultry research. It really puts me ahead of the game. We are able to collaborate with other institutes like the John Innes Centre, Earlham Institute and UEA, as well as external partners like the University of Oxford. Your search is never limited here, especially when it comes to things like facilities or expertise.
The Quadram Institute was formerly the Food Research Institute, where Dr. Ella May Barnes OBE pioneered poultry microbiome research. I truly feel like I am standing on the shoulders of a giant.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Canoeing is my favorite activity. I live in Welney in West Norfolk which is in the Fenlands. When I go out in my canoe, I survey otter and eel populations as a volunteer with the March Level Commissioner’s Office, monitoring protected species.
I also host my own radio show called Nature + Nonsense every Sunday on More Muzic Radio. I keep my listeners up to date with the latest wildlife and environmental news from around the world.
And finally, which came first: the chicken or the egg?
In fact, we know that now. The egg definitely came first!
Bushra Abu-Helil is a PhD candidate in zoology at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @bushyb94. You can also hear her being interviewed on Radio 4’s Farming Today program on Monday 2 May.
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