Israeli professor has idea to save billions of chickens each year
Harvard grad's startup is hoping a gene editing tool will be the 'holy grail' of the egg industry.
The day after my birthday, I received seven live baby chicks in the mail. This wasn't a gift from my wife. This was a gift to the both us. We were, whether I wanted it or not, going to join the millions of people worldwide who raise chickens in their backyard.
We've spared virtually no expense – including hiring an Amish farmer to build us a luxury coop, complete with built-in WiFi. We're going to keep these chickens as pets – my wife has already named each of the hens after female NPR broadcasters – and enjoy the non-stop supply of eggs that they'll provide us.
We bought them online at MyPetChicken.com, where you can choose any breed and just click it into your shopping cart. It's the Amazon Prime of chicken shopping.
The site pretty much guarantees that the chickens you receive will be female. As a whole, the egg industry is generally not interested in male chickens, since those don't lay eggs. So when baby chicks are born en masse at a hatchery (like the ones we received in the mail), an expert checks the sex. The egg-producing females are sent to their new homes where they produce the 1.2 trillion eggs that people around the globe consume annually. The males, sadly, are mostly killed. This process, known as chicken culling, is responsible for the deaths of about seven billion chickens each year.
Yehuda Elram, an Israeli entrepreneur, is the grandson of chicken farmers. "The public was not so aware of this problem, because the industry was not so proud of it," he told From The Grapevine. "Recently, because of more awareness and because of animal welfare issues, it's become a bigger deal."
Elram, a Harvard graduate, knew there had to be a better way and he found it in the laboratory of Professor Daniel Offen, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Offen had an ingenious idea: What if you could tell if a chick was going to be male or female before it hatched? That would prevent billions of unnecessary deaths each year. "It is the holy grail of this industry," he said.
"The chromosomes which determine if the fertile egg will become a male or female chicken are inside the egg as it's laid," Elram explained. "So that's an abundance of info from day zero." The problem is that chromosomes don't naturally have an optical appearance. But by using gene editing and slightly tweaking the DNA, Elram and Offen have created a binary solution: inside the egg, the male chicks are marked and the females are not. Using a special scanner allows them to know if the egg contains a male chick or a female one.
Instead of waiting weeks for the male chicks to hatch, the eggs themselves can be used for food and in other industries that consume eggs: like tanneries and cosmetic companies. There would be no need for the male chickens to be born and then killed.
They launched a startup, calling it eggXYt (pronounced "Exit"). Their slogan? Count your chickens before they hatch.
I called up Traci Torres, the co-founder of MyPetChicken.com, the site where we purchased our baby chicks to get her thoughts. "The technology is just so exciting," she told me. "Also, the time and energy that's put into sexing. These sexers are individuals who can make $1,000 to $2,000 a day sexing these chickens. It's so expensive for the hatcheries."
Kathy Shea Mormino is a backyard chicken expert. She's the author of two books on the subject and her Facebook page, The Chicken Chick, has nearly a million followers. "Most backyard chicken keepers aren't interested in a rooster. It will eliminate the problems with trying to re-home roosters," she said of the new process. "I think it's a great thing. I look forward to that technology being applied to the benefit of the species."
Elram predicts that the technology will reach the market within two years. "It's part of a mega trend today," he explained. "Consumers care today about what happens between farm and fork."
EggXYt is just one of many Israeli startups at the forefront of the food tech industry. Companies in the Mediterranean country are working on everything from making vegetables last longer to cannabis-enriched pizza.
As for Elram, he has high hopes for solving the chicken and egg conundrum. "We're working to create efficiencies for the industry and adding compassion and other animal welfare benefits," he said. "This is a game changer."
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