New developments in egg-sexing technology could bring an end to the hatching and culling of male layer chicks. With approximately 3.2 billion male chicks culled each year globally, the adoption of egg-sexing technologies would not only address ethical concerns, but also save producers significant resources.
Interest in the issue is growing in several markets. In the U.S., for example, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) recently announced a $6 million initiative – the Egg-Tech Prize – to stimulate development of technologies that allow the accurate, cost-efficient and rapid determination of the gender of layer chicks before they hatch.
These technologies limit negative impacts on hatching rate, animal health and performance parameters, while still rendering the male eggs usable, for example as animal feed or in the cosmetics industry.
Outside of the U.S. initiative, several very different technologies are under development. So what are they, how do they work, and how close are they to becoming commercially available?
Spectroscopic sex detection
Agri Advanced Technologies, part of the EW Group, has developed a prototype, fully automated spectroscopic sex detection system in a joint venture with Netherlands-based Innovatec.
The technology detects the difference in the reflected light between male and female eggs using an optical measuring procedure on Day 4 of incubation. It works by first detecting the air cell within the egg, perforating the shell with a CO2 laser, and then lifting off a section of shell. Once the sex of the embryo has been detected, the shell is resealed and only the females are returned to the incubator.
In laboratory tests, when performed by hand with no automation, AAT confirms the technology took “only a few seconds” to take the measurement, with an accuracy of 95 percent.
The company says the advantage of this system is its sustainability – the use of light rather than chemicals – and the fact there are no additional costs for consumables. However, as a result of unforeseen “problems and challenges,” the company has announced that comprehensive stress tests are being carried out, and there is no date set for commercial launch.
Hypereye is a patented scanning technology that uses non-invasive hyperspectral imaging, pre-incubation, to identify whether an egg is fertile, and whether it contains a male or female chick.
Developed by Michael Ngadi at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with funding from Ontario Poultry Industry Council, Egg Farmers of Ontario and the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation, the technology is based on the application of hyperspectral imaging of the eggs combined with advanced data processing protocols. Results have shown almost 100 percent accuracy in determining an egg’s fertility, although the precision for sexing is slightly lower.
Speaking to Poultry International, Ngadi said the technology has several major advantages, including “being a non-destructive and non-GMO technology.” Additionally “there is no need to genetically modify the chickens and the egg.”
Prototypes are being tested in Ontario to achieve the same accuracy and speed at a commercial scale as seen in the laboratory. Commercialization, which is expected this year, will then involve partnering with hatchery automation companies on installation. The prototype can scan an egg in less than one second, and at full capacity the scanning system is expected to identify the gender and fertility of about 30,000 eggs per hour.
The U.S., Netherlands and Sweden have expressed interest in the technology.
EggXYT’s CRISPR-based proprietary technology is a gene-editing tool that uses a biomarker on the male chromosome of a chicken embryo, which glows through the shell when examined under an optical scanner. As this technology can be used as soon as the egg is laid, it also acts as a gatekeeper at the entry point of the hatchery, allowing only female eggs to be incubated.
It is non-invasive – so does not affect the eggs’ fertility – provides pre-incubation egg sex detection in a fraction of a second and, because only the male chicks are marked, the company insists the accuracy should be 100 percent.
But the real beauty of this tool, the company said, is that “only the male eggs are biomarked, so the DNA of the female eggs is 100 percent identical to the DNA of layers today.”
The tool is moving from proof of concept to product, with EggXYT planning to partner with global players throughout the value chain.
Another technology using biomarkers and spectroscopy has been developed by Netherlands-based In Ovo, together with its investors Evonik, VisVires New Protein and Leiden University.
On Day 9, a tiny, resealable hole is made in the egg and a sample is taken and examined by spectroscopy for the In Ovo-identified biomarker. This minimally invasive test takes one second but, when fully developed, the company suggests the rate will be accelerated to a few microseconds per egg.
A prototype is under development, which the company hopes to reveal this year, while the first commercial product is expected to launch in 2020. In Ovo has decided not to publish intermediate results and specifications until the prototype is up and running.
Commenting to Poultry International, In Ovo co-founder Wouter Bruins said: “We see competitors publishing things on speeds, accuracy, pricing, etc., while in some cases they haven’t developed anything yet. … Only a working prototype gives you enough credit to make statements on parameters of a test.”
Detecting the sex-specific hormone
One technology that is in operation in the German market is the Seleggt endocrine test procedure.
This non-invasive technology works on Day 9 of incubation and utilizes a laser to burn a hole of 0.3 millimeters into the eggshell, where a small amount of allantois fluid is extracted, leaving the interior of the hatching egg untouched. The fluid is then placed on a patented marker outside the hatching egg, where a change of color indicates whether the female sex-specific hormone estrone sulphate is detected. The hatching egg does not need to be resealed as the inner membrane mends itself and closes the hole.
This process is said to produce approximately a 98 percent accuracy rate.
The first "respeggt" brand eggs from laying hens that underwent this process were sold in 223 REWE and Penny stores in Berlin in November, at a few Euro cents more than eggs from traditional sources. Meanwhile, the national market launch of free-range respeggt eggs will be gradually introduced in all REWE and Penny stores in Germany throughout 2019.
The technology has been developed in a joint venture between German retailer the REWE Group and Dutch technology company HatchTech, in co-operation with the University of Leipzig, whose research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). The Seleggt joint venture is developing a business model to make the technology available to industry as a cost-neutral service.
Seleggt extracts a small amount of allantois fluid on Day 9 to detect a sex-specific hormone. (Courtesy Seleggt)
Egg sexing recognized at Good Farm Animal Welfare Awards