Gene editing technology could end male chick culls

A biomarker protein placed on the genome of male embryos could help sex chicks in ovo, reducing or even eliminating male chick culling at layer farms.

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A biomarker protein placed on the genome of male embryos could help sex chicks in ovo, reducing or even eliminating male chick culling at layer farms.

“This new technology has the potential to address ethical animal welfare concerns and to contribute to a more sustainable egg industry. We are proud of our involvement in studying this potentially ground-breaking innovation while still keeping the health of our animals as top-priority,” Jordan van Arendonk, chief innovation and technology officer, Hendrix Genetics, said in a statement.

Hendrix Genetics has partnered with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, to explore the viability of the sex sorting technology and develop best practices to integrate it into current industry practice.

“Sex sorting technology is unique as this sustainable solution means the food product, the eggs, and the hens that lay them, will remain exactly the same as they are today,” CSIRO scientist, Dr. Mark Tizard added.

Currently, a chick’s sex can only be identified after hatching. Male chicks are of little use to the egg industry and approximately 6-7 billion male layer chicks are culled each year, an animal welfare and economic concern. Producers spend more than $70 million in labor and energy to incubate and sex these eggs and the value of wasted eggs in the U.S. is more than $440 million annually.

How it works

The proof-of-concept project will use gene editing to place a biological marker on the sex chromosome of layer chicks, making it easier to identify male chicks before incubation and hatch.

The process “builds on our experience with chicken genome engineering and gene editing” and “could negate the need to cull chickens and contribute to future proofing our food security through a more sustainable industry,” according to the CSIRO website.

As an added benefit, the fertilized eggs identified as containing male embryos could now be used in vaccine development, the science agency said. Fertilized eggs are a popular research model due to their low cost. For example, research involving fertilized eggs led to a novel nasal spray, vaccines and other protective agents against COVID-19.

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