Administration of Marek’s disease (MD) vaccines in ovo has become a common practice for the poultry industry. Efficacy of MD vaccines is very high, even though they are administered to chicken embryos that are immunologically immature. We have recently demonstrated that in ovo vaccination with turkey herpesvirus (HVT) results in increased activation of T cells at hatch. Our previous results suggested that in ovo vaccination with HVT might have a positive impact not only on MD protection but also on the overall maturity of the developing immune system of the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus). The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of administration of HVT at 18 days of embryonation (ED) on the maturation of the embryo immune system. Four experiments were conducted in Specific-Pathogen-Free Avian Supplies (SPAFAS) chickens to evaluate the effect of administration of HVT at 18 ED on the splenic cell phenotypes at day of age (experiment 1) and on the ability of 1-day-old chickens to respond to various antigens compared with older birds (experiments 2 and 3). In addition, a fourth experiment was conducted to elucidate whether administration of other serotype’s MD vaccines (CVI988 and SB-1) at 18 ED had the same effect as HVT on the spleen cell phenotypes at day of age. Our results demonstrated that 1-day-old chickens that had received HVT in ovo (1-day HVT) had higher percentages of CD45+, MHC-I+, CD45+MHC-I+, CD3+, MHC-II+, CD3+MHC-II+, CD4+, CD8+, and CD4+CD8+ cells in the spleen than 1-day-old sham-inoculated chickens (1-day sham). Moreover, spleens of 1-day HVT chickens had greater percentages of CD45+MHC-I+ cells and equal or greater numbers of CD4+CD8− and CD4−CD8+ cells than older unvaccinated chickens. In addition, administration of HVT at 18 ED rendered chicks at hatch more responsive to unrelated antigens such as concavalin A, phytohemagglutinin-L, and keyhole limpet hemocyanin. Administration of MD vaccines of other serotypes had an effect, although less remarkable than HVT, on the spleen cell phenotypes at hatch. Vaccines of all three serotypes resulted in an increased percentage of MHC-I+, CD45−MHC-I+, CD4−CD8+, and CD8+ cells, but only HVT resulted in a higher percentage of CD45+, CD45+MHC-I+, CD3+MHC-II+, and CD4+CD8− cells. Results of this study show that it is possible to hasten maturation of the chicken embryo immune system by administering HVT in ovo and open new avenues to optimize the procedure to improve and strengthen the immunocompetency of commercial chickens at hatch.

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