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N.C. State Researcher Discovers Link Between Chicken Feathers, Mad Cow Disease

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A researcher at N.C. State may have stumbled onto something big. He may have discovered a link between chicken feathers and mad cow disease.

Jason Shih, a professor from N.C. State University, was working on a machine that processes poultry waste when his research took a strange twist.

"One time, a chicken got out of cages and was delivered into the digester and the chicken disappeared," he said.

Even the feathers, which usually decompose slowly, were destroyed.

"The feathers are like your hair or your fingernails. They are very tough proteins and are not digestible," Shih said.

Shih spent two years trying to isolate the bacteria that wiped out the feathers. His research produced an enzyme that could break down complex proteins like feathers.

"It's produced by the bacteria, but the bacteria just produced so much for their own need so we genetically engineered it," he said.

The engineered bacteria could produce 10 times the enzymes. The poultry industry currently produces about 1,000,000 tons of feathers a year in the United States. Once broken down by the enzymes, they can be made into plastic or be used as an efficient livestock feed.

"It turns out the chicks grow five to 10 times better and faster," he said. "[It could] save our poultry industry about $400 million a year."

The enzymes can also take a bite out of mad cow disease, which is caused by tough proteins. The proteins are so tough that they cannot be destroyed by most sterilization methods, but not tough enough for the newly discovered enzymes.

Shih's son, Giles, is now marketing the discovery through a biotechnology company on N.C. State's Centennial Campus.