Gene editing techniques like CRISPR could revolutionize the poultry industry in the future, improving yield, resistance to disease and leading to better welfare. 

“Gene editing itself has become a topic of much research and great interest in the academic and in the commercial work,” Mark Fife, Ph.D., head of biotechnology, Aviagen, said during the Poultry Tech Webinar Series.

CRISPR functions like a pair of molecular scissors. The technique can cut DNA from a specific location at the gene, deleting the sequence entirely or replacing it with an alternative sequence. 

It has several applications – from medical to plants to livestock and aquaculture and micro-organisms. The bulk of the stories in the news refer to potential breakthroughs in human medicine, such as cancer treatments and genetic disorders.

In livestock, much of the discussion about gene editing currently applies to disease resistance, yield and quality, welfare and sex determination. For example, in cows, CRISPR has been used to create polled cattle and heat tolerant cattle, which can be beneficial to both welfare and management. 

Barriers to avian gene editing

Poultry require a slightly different gene editing approach compared to other livestock. For mammals, a technique called somatic cell nucleic transfer (SCNT) is used, but it requires access to the developing embryo.

“In chickens, that’s obviously a different story because we can’t access the embryo to implant the edit,” Fife explained,

Instead, the process used for avian species makes genetic edits to primordial germ cells, the progenitors for sperm and ovum cells in the chicken. 

“What we do is we get into the developing embryo at a very early stage, about two and a half days into embryonic development. We then isolate the primordial germ cells,” he added. 

Researchers can perform various gene edits on the primordial germ cells, which continue to grow and develop in cell culture. At HH stage 14-17 of the chick development, the primordial germ cells are reinserted into the embryo, resulting in a chimeric chicken.

“As you can see, not only is it very different from somatic cell nuclear transfer, it also takes a very long time,” said Fife.

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Recent advancements in this gene editing technique have resulted in poultry resisted to the avian leukosis virus and avian influenza. 

Regulatory hurdles

Gene editing currently faces regulatory hurdles throughout much of the world. In the U.S., gene editing is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Meanwhile, the process is completely prohibited in Europe, although a post-Brexit UK is currently looking at deregulating gene edited crops.

“Although everyone is incredibly excited by this at the moment, the gene editing peak is probably at a max and we are talking about food security, sustainability and animal welfare. But often what happens with technology is we hit this trough of disillusionment,” Fife said.

Hopefully, this technology will clear regulatory hurdles and “enter the sight of the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity,” he added.

Aviagen’s breeding techniques are “exclusively based on traditional and established selection methods,” Fife said, and although the company also “recognizes its potential value as a research tool, there are no plans to introduce gene editing or any other genetic modification technique for commercial breeding purposes.”

What’s coming next

For more on the technologies set to advance the poultry industry, join industry-changing innovators, researchers, entrepreneurs, technology experts, investors and leading poultry producers at the Poultry Tech Webinar Series, scheduled for November 2, 4, 10, 11, 17, 30 and December 2.

During the webinar series, industry experts will preview what’s coming next – from prospective solutions to developing technology – for the poultry industry. 

This webinar series is proudly sponsored by: Arm & Hammer, Aviagen, Baader, Boehringer Ingelheim, Cargill, Ceva, Chore-Time, Cobb, Evonik, Marel, Phibro Animal Health, Staubli and Zoetis.

Visit our website for more details on the webinar series, topics and speakers

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