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In first, Israeli scientists program hens to lay eggs that carry only female chicks

Gene editing technology developed by Volcani Center scientists, who say it has potential to stop ‘devastating’ destruction of 7 billion unwanted male chicks globally each year

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Golda hens when they were chicks. (Ori Peretz)
The Golda hens when they were chicks. (Ori Peretz)

In a dramatic breakthrough with the potential to halt the destruction of some seven billion unwanted male chicks globally each year, Israeli scientists have produced a gaggle of hens all called Golda that are the first in the world to lay eggs that only produce females, the developers said Tuesday.

The technology has been in development for seven years, with embryology expert Dr. Yuval Cinnamon heading a team at the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization — Volcani Center, in partnership with Poultry by Huminn.

“The size of the egg-laying market in the world is estimated at about 7 billion laying hens, and for each hen, a male chick is culled. The production of table eggs in the world is estimated at over two trillion eggs per year — over 80 million tons,” Cinnamon told The Times of Israel.

“We are very happy to be able to provide a viable solution to… the most devastating animal welfare issue in the livestock industry worldwide, for the benefit of animals and humankind,” he said.

Male chicks born to egg-laying hens cost more to care for than they would ever sell for as meat, unable to compete with meat chickens, or “broilers,” which are born to a different kind of hen. Broilers are typically larger breeds with more muscle content, chosen because they grow very large, very quickly. Although they also lay eggs, broiler hens lay them much less often than laying hen breeds. Laying hens (“layers”) are leaner and smaller.

The scientists’  discovery has the potential to nearly halve the cost of hatching and eliminate the investment currently needed to sort and dispose of male chicks by unsavory methods that range from suffocation and gassing to being ground up while still alive.

Illustrative: Chickens inside a barn in Israel on August 11 2020. ( Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

The technology was announced last year with the hatching of the first Golda chicks. The variety is named Golda after the color of the hens, not the late prime minister of Israel Golda Meir, although a spokesperson said this was a happy coincidence.

Since then, the chicks have grown into adult hens and laid their own eggs, and the technology has been shown to work.

Roosters carry the Z chromosome while hens carry Z for males and W for females. The coupling of two Zs leads to a male chick being born. If the mother supplies the W chromosome to the father’s Z, a female chick will emerge.

The research team discovered a way to genetically edit the hen’s Z chromosome so that eggs carrying male embryos will stop developing at an early stage and will not hatch.

Golda’s eggs are fertile eggs from which only females hatch and these female chicks then lay table eggs.

The female chicks that result are not genetically modified in any way because they inherited the unedited W chromosome from the mother and the untouched Z chromosome from the father.

According to a Huminn company statement, the European Union’s director general for Health and Food Safety has examined the technology and confirmed that both the egg-laying hens from the Golda line and the eggs that they lay can be sold without any regulatory change.

Cinnamon added that the US FDA was evaluating the research and that he hoped it, and Israel’s Agriculture Ministry, would follow suit.

This development comes as the demand for eggs is expected to rise by 50% globally from 2020 to 2035.

Illustrative: An egg box in a chicken farm in Israel on August 11 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Golda hens will be kept at poultry breeding centers, while their offspring will be sold to farmers for the production of unfertilized eggs for eating.

Yaarit Wainberg, CEO of Poultry by Huminn, added, “In recent years, we have witnessed a change in awareness around the world regarding animal welfare, but on the other hand, no practical solutions have been identified to stop the unfortunate phenomenon of killing the male chicks. We are proud and excited to be the first in the world to offer an effective solution, with a significant contribution to the entire value chain — all this based on Israeli science and innovation.”

A spokeswoman for Huminn and the Volcani Center explained that there were no photographs of the mature Golda hens because of the need to maintain total sterility in the laboratory. Once the variety becomes commercial, they will live like any other egg-laying hen.

Huminn — established five years ago under the name NRS Agro Innovation — is an American-Israeli innovation company that helps to create and commercializes innovative solutions in health, nutrition, environmental quality, and human and animal welfare.

It has signed several strategic collaborations with Israeli organizations. In addition to the Volcani Center, these include the Weizmann Institute of Science, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and The National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev.

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