Editor’s Note: Yehuda Elram is cofounder and CEO at eggXYt, an Israeli startup behind novel technology enabling producers to sex eggs before incubation in a bid to end the practice of male chick culling.
The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.
Gene editing technology has huge potential in medicine and agriculture, offering the promise of a cure for human diseases from sickle cell anemia and beta-thalassemia to disease-resistant crops and livestock.
It can also enable the egg industry to count its (male) chicks before they hatch, diverting males from the incubation process altogether so hatcheries don’t incubate chicks only to cull 50% of them the day they are born.
So why didn’t firms using gene editing for sex-determination in eggs impress judges at the Egg-Tech Prize, a $6 million global competition to find scalable tech solutions to end male chick culling?
Because the criteria – laid out here – specifically exclude “proposals that involve gene-editing.”
We believe the Egg-Tech Prize committee should re-evaluate
Given that none of the applicants have thus far been able to meet all of the ambitious criteria on speed, accuracy, economic feasibility, and throughput, we believe the Egg-Tech Prize committee should re-evaluate and consider the potential of gene editing technology to address the problem of male chick culling.
We think our company meets all the criteria, particularly as it’s non-invasive, cost-effective, fast, and 100% accurate.
Why are we afraid of gene editing?
The Egg-Tech prize organizers do not explain their decision to exclude gene editing solutions from this prize, so I can only speculate [see editor’s note below]. Gene editing is a relatively new technology so maybe they are hesitant to endorse a technology that hasn’t been around to survive the test of time.
I, however, strongly believe that we should not fear new technology. This is particularly true with regards to technology that presents innovative solutions to pressing issues that otherwise seem unsolvable.
In the past, I have described multiple examples of how gene editing can do wonders for our world. From curing sickle cell anemia, a disease that over 100 million people worldwide suffer from, to addressing the severe issues of food security by making crops disease resistant, gene editing provides solutions to issues that before seemed unsolvable.
Although a recent discovery, gene editing is highly regarded, and it can be implemented with exceptionally high precision. This was shown in 2020, when researchers at the University of Berkeley won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of CRISPR Cas9 (gene editing). This vote of confidence from the Nobel Institute gives me great assurance in the scientific community’s ethical judgment and restraint when it comes to the implementation of gene editing.
It is important to note that gene editing is already regulated for use in human medicine and agriculture, with stringent safety and ethical standards. Therefore, there is no reason to place a higher bar for gene editing in the case of ending male chick culling.
How we use gene editing to end male chick culling
Our company’s CRISPR/Cas9-based solution places a luminescent biomarker on the male chromosome, making the sex of chicks detectable through the eggshell on the day they are laid.
Non-invasive and 100% accurate, the most significant advantage of our technology is its ability to meet the industry standards for throughput. All other solutions fail to do this, which could explain why no eligible solution received the Egg-Tech Prize.
In the United States, about 330 million chicks are sorted each year, equivalent to approximately 38,000 eggs per hour. The speed of detection for us is limited only by the speed of light, making what we think is an ideal solution for meeting the criteria of the egg tech prize for high throughput.
All in all, gene editing is more of a side effect with no consequences. Through this process, the female egg remains unedited, which means that the layer chickens and the eggs sold at the supermarket will be free from gene editing. The fact that the process is non-invasive means that it does not harm or alter the eggs in any way.
Both of these factors help maintain the quality and viability of the eggs, as any alteration or damage to the layer chickens could affect their development and growth potential.
Implementing our technology will play a significant role in shaping an ethical poultry farming industry. We can save hatcheries up to €1.5 billion in operational expenditures by reducing incubation costs. The widespread implementation of our technology will also reduce CO2 emissions and add seven billion eggs per year to the global egg supply for use in other industries.
How gene editing approaches compares with current approaches to in ovo sexing
Besides eggXYt, the most commercially advanced solution to determine the sex of chicks before they hatch is not able to identify males until the 8th or 9th day of incubation, when a small drop of liquid is extracted from the hatching eggs and tested for a hormone only produced by females.
Such solutions cannot keep pace with industry standards for throughput. They also pose a potential risk of egg cross-contamination due to the required eggshell piercing. Additionally, eight or nine days of incubation results in added energy consumption and renders the eggs difficult to repurpose as they already contain embryos.
These shortcomings impact the solution’s speed and ability to meet industry standards for throughput.
Given the significant negative ethical, environmental and economic impact of male chick culling, and the apparent lack of viable solutions, it is crucial not to overlook the immense potential of gene editing to solve this urgent problem.
According to Jeffrey L. Rosichan, Ph.D, director, Crops of the Future Collaborative at the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), which organizes the Egg-Tech Prize along with Open Philanthropy :
“FFAR does support innovative research in several areas that seek to develop tools and technologies such as those being pioneered by companies like eggXYt. However, the Egg-Tech Prize is focused on providing solutions that can be utilized now, in all geographies, where more rapid and robust sex-determination is needed. Unfortunately, in a number of those geographies, gene editing currently is not an accepted methodology.”