Antibody Production in the Hen

  • J. Landon
  • J. A. Woolley
  • C. McLean


It has, I believe, been often remarked, that a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg. (Samuel Butler, 1835-1902) Antibodies of the IgG class are selectively transported across the oviduct from the hen’s circulation to the egg yolk. From there they are transferred to the embryo and help to provide systemic immunity essential for survival during the first few weeks of a chicken’s existence in a microbially hostile environment. Antibodies of the immunoglobulin (Ig) M and A classes are largely confined to the egg white and are ingested by the embryo to help to ensure local gastrointestinal immunity in early life. There is a substantial and rapidly increasing literature concerning the potential application of yolk-derived antibodies for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

Yolk antibody levels are similar to, or slightly exceed, those in hen’s blood. They comprise at least two subclasses of IgG, which differ in several significant ways from their mammalian counterparts and are often referred to as IgY. Thus, although comprising two light and two heavy chains, they are of larger molecular weight; their isoelectric point (pI) is about one pH unit lower; and the Fc portion of the molecule does not bind with protein A, protein G, complement, rheumatoid factor or macrophages. These differences offer advantages in the use of yolk-derived antibodies for some immunoassay procedures. Of especial importance, because of phylogenetic dichotomy, it has often proved possible to raise antibodies in hens directed against highly conserved mammalian macromolecules when this has not been accomplished in rabbits or other mammalian species.

On theoretical grounds, there are potential risks in administering avian antibodies systemically to man or animals. However, it seems likely that yolk-derived antibodies will prove to be safe when given by the oral route and will prove of value in the prevention and/or treatment of an extensive range of gastrointestinal infections in both clinical and veterinary medicine. Thus it has proved to be relatively simple to produce high titres of high-affinity IgY against numerous viruses, bacteria and parasites. Such antibodies may be more resistant to heat, acid and enzymatic cleavage than mammalian IgM and IgA; the egg represents considerable “downstream” processing as compared with blood; and there may be advantages in the oral administration of yolk or whole egg suspensions, rather than purified IgY. This approach has already proved successful in the prevention of rotaviral diarrhoea in mice and cats and in the treatment of piglets infected with pathogenic Escherichia coli. Of particular importance in this regard is the simplicity and low cost of producing kilogram amounts of specific antibodies in egg yolk and the ease of oral therapy.


Canine Distemper Virus Bovine Serum Albu Infectious Intestinal Disease Rocket Immunoelectrophoresis Immunol Meth 
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© Springer-Verlag London Limited 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Landon
  • J. A. Woolley
  • C. McLean

There are no affiliations available

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