New weapon against virus killing Australia’s endangered parrots

By Jared Richards 5 October 2016
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Findings announced this week could be the beginning of a cure for the disease threatening four endangered native parrots.

RESEARCHERS ARE ONE step closer to a vaccine for the virus that causes beak and feather disease, often fatal to Australian parrots. A paper published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications details how an Australian-led research team have uncovered the molecular makeup of the virus, a vital step in formulating a vaccine against it.

The breakthrough comes after years of research which began in 2009, led by scientists from Charles Sturt University’s Wagga Wagga campus. “We now have a unique way of thinking about the virus and how it self-assembles,” says Professor Jade Forwood, lead author and one of the university’s biochemists. “We know at the atomic level the structure of the virus and how it fits together.”

Other institutions involved in the discovery include the Australian Synchrotron in Victoria and Monash University, as well as the National Microbiology Centre and the Autonomous University of Madrid, both in Spain.

It’s promising news for conservationists as beak and feather disease, also known as psittacine circoviral disease, is one of the main threats to four endangered native parrots: the Norfolk parakeet (Cyanoramphus cookii), the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor), the western ground parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster).

How beak and feather disease works

The virus attacks cells related to feathers and beaks; victims lose their feathers and their beaks soften, threatening them with death from starvation. The disease has been a major hurdle for conservation efforts as the disease can return  years after seemingly having been thwarted in both wild and captive communities, suggesting the virus survives for long periods in tree hollows and potential nesting sites.

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Of particular concern is the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. Migrating each winter from Tasmania’s south-west coast to coastal Victoria and South Australia, the parrot’s population is dwindling in the face of coastal developments on salt marshes, the bird’s traditional foraging ground.

Beak and feather disease makes conservation efforts a special challenge, says experts. Following a 2014 outbreak, Emertius Professor Barry Baker, chair of the National Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team, estimates a wild population of fewer than 30 parrots today.

He describes the affliction as an “an awful disease… Young birds with the virus are particularly susceptible and stand little chance of survival in the wild.”

“Another outbreak of the disease in the wild would be a disaster,” he adds. “So the ability to vaccinate would be a leap forward in parrot conservation, also benefitting captive populations and our ability to release to the wild.”

By understanding the molecular structure of the virus, the study has isolated the two proteins it produces. The next step will be experimenting how to cut off these proteins, thereby creating a vaccine.