Israeli scientists have genetically modified hens to lay only eggs that produce females, a breakthrough that could help end the annual culling of around seven billion male chicks around the world.
In a remarkable development that could have major positive environmental and economic benefits, embryologists worked for seven years to figure out how to modify the genes of laying hens so that when they carry male embryos, these don’t progress and don’t grow. not hatch.
Male chicks born to laying hens are much smaller and leaner than those born to hens that produce broilers.
As a result, they are destroyed en masse by being ground or gassed as they are unsuitable for meat production, are expensive to raise and do not lay eggs.
Animal rights campaigners have denounced the practice as barbaric and it has been banned in several European countries – but not in the UK, where some 29million day-old male chicks are killed every year.
Restrictions across Europe
Germany’s ban on the culling of male chicks came into effect this year, while French farmers have until the end of 2022 to comply with the new restrictions. Italy could be next, with plans to introduce legislation by the end of 2026.
“This is a world first and the only easy solution for industry players to implement,” Dr. Yuval Cinnamon, an embryologist at the Volcani Center, told AFP.
His team at the Israel Agricultural Research Organization-Volcani Center worked with Huminn, an American-Israeli company to develop the gene-editing technology.
Besides the fact that the sex of the chick inside the egg is predetermined, the hens are “completely identical to the breed of hens that lay edible eggs and are currently used in agriculture,” according to Huminn.
Only option available
Researchers say this is the only option to drastically reduce the mass culling of male chicks around the world.
The technology involves genetically modifying laying hens so that when they carry male embryos, these do not progress and hatch.
“After fertilization, male embryos do not develop, and female embryos develop normally without being genetically modified and hatch normally,” Dr. Cinnamon explained.
“It will provide a real answer to what is probably the most serious animal welfare problem in the world today,” he added.
Beyond the animal rights benefits, the technology could offer poultry producers huge savings in terms of the space and energy needed to operate incubators while reducing significant slaughter costs.
“It costs a dollar to cull each male chick, which is a savings of seven billion a year,” Dr Cinnamon said.
Huminn predicted that the commercial benefits of the technology could emerge within two years.
At a meeting in October, European Union agriculture ministers said they would consider a bloc-wide ban on the culling of male chicks of laying hens, pending the results of a an impact assessment.
Elsewhere, it was announced last month that chickens genetically modified to prevent bird flu are on the horizon in a breakthrough that could prevent shortages of eggs and poultry in supermarkets.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and Imperial College say they are set to publish new research into creating a bird flu-resistant chicken.
If successful, genetically modified herds could be available in five to ten years, the researchers say.
In 2019, the team showed that it was possible to use the Crispr genome-editing technique to remove a section of chicken DNA that the virus hijacks to replicate.
They discovered that the virus was no longer able to grow inside cells with the genetic change.
Although the work was only done in chicken cells, the team worked to duplicate the results in a live animal.