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Vultures and Immunity: Scavenging Better Than the Others

Oct 30, 2015 05:41 PM EDT
turkey vulture
A new study looks at what we can learn about immunity from vultures.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Watching a vulture chomp down on rotting animal flesh is tough for humans to stomach, but for the vulture--it's brunch! The physiology of this scavenging bird has evolved over time so that the birds can literally stomach their meal. Now, new research shows that the characteristics of their heavy-duty bellies are encoded in their genes.

According to the first Eurasian vulture genome study, vultures are able to digest animal remains and defend themselves against the pathogens, or disease-causing microorganisms, they ingest. The study, published in Genome Biology, focused on the black vulture, the largest bird of prey known to man.

Since vultures consume decaying carcasses, they inhibit the propagation of disease, thus playing a fundamental role in their ecosystems. However, by eating putrid flesh, the birds are exposed to dangerous pathogens, and yet do not become ill. For years, scientists have assumed that vultures have powerful immunity and developed ways in which to stop infection. Now, this new study proves that the black vulture "has genetic signatures for resisting infection from eating decaying flesh," according to lead author Jong Bhak of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology at South Korea, in a release.

In order to understand the genes of the vulture and see which sequences were linked to the birds' scavenging diet, the scientists from Ulsan compared the vulture genes against the genes of a bald eagle. The researchers saw a major difference in the genes that regulated the secretion of gastric acid in the stomach. The vulture secretes additional acid in order to digest the animal remains they feast on.

Additionally, the gene sequences connected to infection resistance and immunity were distinctive in the vulture and bald eagle. The vulture has a set of genes that permit certain cells to pinpoint pathogens in microorganisms and process them for excretion.

"Understanding the genetic make-up of extreme life forms has potential for improving human health," Bhak said in an official statement. "The immune system genes we've identified could be useful targets in humans for protection against infection."

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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