The team screened thousands of commensal - non-pathogenic - bacteria from adult chicken guts to identify strains that might have probiotic qualities. They found that Lactobacillus johnsonii cleared the pathogenic bacterium, Clostridium perfingens, from the gut of chicks.
This bacteria can exist in the chicken gut without causing disease to the animal. However, it has also been known to produce toxins associated with necrotic enteritis, which causes poor weight gain and ulcers in poultry.
In humans, the symptoms of this condition are intense abdominal cramps and diarrhoea, sometimes accompanied by vomiting. The probiotic also reduced colonisation of the small intestine of poultry by E. coli, but did not clear it completely.
Some poultry feed already contains probiotic bacteria, but as an undefined mixture, which gives inconsistent results. This research has shown that specific probiotics can be used to target and eliminate a specific pathogen.
Targeted probiotics may therefore be a viable alternative to the use of antibiotics in animal feed. The probiotic may also have additional benefits for the poultry of stimulating the immune system and improving the rate of growth.
This is potentially great news for Europe's poultry industry, which has taken a battering of late. The UK's Soil Association claimed yesterday that as many as one in eight eggs may contain residues of lasalocid, a veterinary drug that could be potentially harmful to humans.
The pressure group claims that tests on eggs by the UK government's veterinary medicines directorate show residues were found in 12 per cent of egg samples last year, up from 1 per cent in 1999. This means that consumers may be eating up to three million eggs a day containing residues.
Cross-contamination at feed mills has been blamed by government veterinary inspectors, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper.
On top of this, meat scares continue to make consumers unsure about the safety of poultry products. Last month, the Dutch government ordered the culling of 600 ducks on a farm after routine blood tests showed signs of antibodies to a mild strain of bird flu.
This followed an earlier announcement that the Dutch government had decided to cull all 22,000 chickens at a farm in Eemsmond in the northeast of the country. The Dutch are determined to ensure that the bird virus does not return - last year a mild form of the virus mutated into an aggressive variant, leading to the slaughter of a quarter of all Dutch poultry at a cost of hundreds of millions of euros. Some 30.7 million birds in total had to be slaughtered.
Europe as a whole is still at heightened alert following the recent bird flu epidemic that devastated parts of Asia. Last month, the European Parliament voted to create a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), following growing public concern over animal disease epidemics.