In the layer chicken industry, male chicks are useless because they cannot produce eggs and aren’t the right breed for meat.
This means that every year, workers called “sexers” cull approximately 7 billion male hatchlings to be exterminated by gassing, suffocation, electrocution or live shredding.
Everyone agrees this practice is both cruel and economically inefficient. Yet the problem persists for lack of better solutions.
Three Israeli startups are working to commercialize very different, but equally innovative, technologies to help hatcheries end the massive male chick slaughter and at the same time reduce energy and other operational expenses.
Eggs incubated in Soos Technology’s Smart Tray are exposed to specific acoustic vibrations during the first six days of embryonic development.
Remarkably, the soundwaves cause genomically male chicks to grow ovaries and hatch after the usual 21 days as female chicks with the ability to lay eggs. The sounds have no effect on genomically female chicks.
“Our treatment is safe for the embryos, non-intrusive to the eggs, and does not involve any form of genetic modification or hormonal intervention,” says Alon Gozlan, VP Business Development.
Soos was founded in 2017 by Nashaat Haj-Mohammed and Yael Alter with funding from Takwin, a VC supporting Arab-Jewish Israeli startups.
Gozlan says the technology is about a year away from the market. “We have a few pilot sites in Europe and the US to demonstrate and validate the technology together with customers,” he says.
“The commercial hatchery industry is very traditional in its buying behavior and we are asking them to replace their core technology with a different form of incubation using different equipment. They need to see if it works for their own hatchery.”
Sensors in the Smart Tray monitor nearly every egg, providing critical data to Soos to improve the technology to the point where 100 percent of genomic males will hatch as females. “Every egg is an experiment,” says Gozlan.
Soos is raising funds to further develop its deep tech, which Gozlan says is unique.
“Most of our competitors, such as European companies InOvotive and Seleggt, use detection technologies that analyze what is inside the egg. No one is doing sex reversal to increase productivity.”
A Soos spinoff company, Ovo Technology, is doing the opposite for the broiler industry, using an all-natural formula that makes female chicken embryos develop as male broilers, which are favored for producing meat.
“My grandparents were layer chicken farmers, so I had been exposed to this world from a young age, but I could have never imagined the work I’d be doing when I was collecting eggs in my grandparents’ farm,” says lawyer Yehuda Elram, cofounder and CEO of eggXYt.
The company uses gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit the genes of chickens so that any male eggs they lay will light up when checked by an ultrasound device.
These male eggs are removed so that no resources go into incubating them. They could be sold to non-food industries such as pharma or cosmetics.
“Our technology is unique because we can perform sexing on day zero as the eggs are being laid, which is as early as possible,” says Elram, noting that though the parent stock is gene-edited, neither the laying females nor their eggs are genetically modified.
“This makes our technology the most efficient and implies that we meet the highest bar of ethics and efficiency because we can sex eggs before an embryo has formed,” he says.
“Another benefit of our technology, which is progressing well on a lab scale, is that it is designed to have a nearly 100% success rate.”
Elram was a practicing lawyer for 20 years. One of his clients, Prof. Dani Offen of Tel Aviv University, approached him with his idea for using CRISPR to solve the chick culling issue. The two founded eggXYt in 2014.
The hen that lays female eggs
Remember Golda, the hen that lays only female eggs? Sounds like the start of a fairy tale, but it’s for real.
Poultry by Huminn is founded on molecular biology technology licensed from the Israeli government’s Volcani Institute Agricultural Research Organization. Animal science researcher Yuval Cinnamon developed it in conjunction with UK-based Compassion in World Farming.
“For sure it’s the only chicken breed in the world that hatches only female chicks,” says CEO Yaarit Weinberg, citing a recently completed proof-of-concept experiment.
“Golda, the hen we created through genomic editing, is not a commercial hen. To bring the technology to market it has to be implemented into commercial layer lines,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
“It’s so scalable because we just upload the trait once per line and due to genetic segregation it’s propagated into the lines forever until it reaches the commercial Golda — the mother of the hens that lay the eggs.”
When Golda hen eggs are exposed to blue light for several hours, the edited DNA is activated to stop the development of any male embryos while leaving female embryos intact.
“Golda should lay only female chicks, but to be sure we illuminate all the eggs it lays with blue light,” explains Weinberg.
“We see that the male embryos stop developing early and only female embryos continue developing. The system was tested in different settings and it works every time.”
The undeveloped male embryos in the shell could be used as animal feed.
Golda hens and their chicks are identical to conventional wild-type laying hens and are confirmed non-GMO by the US FDA and the European Food Safety Authority.
“The trait is in the Z chromosome transferred from the mother hen only to males, so the Golda breed holds the gene but the chickens that lay the eggs are 100% wild type,” Weinberg says.
Poultry by Huminn is now in talks with potential partners and strategic investors to gear up for commercialization.
“This is a gamechanger not only in the important animal welfare issue that is our main driver,” says Weinberg, “but we also save 50% of the space in hatcheries and the expenses involved in employing sexers and disposing of male chicks.”