Breakthrough egg tech could save billions from the hatchery cull
Soundwave technology is saving male chicks from being suffocated at birth – by turning them into females.
Half of the 15 billion chicks that hatch every year in commercial operators globally are slaughtered because they’re worthless. Male chicks cannot lay eggs or fatten up enough to be sold as poultry.
But as Europe continues to legislate against the culls, Soos, a startup in Beersheva, southern Israel, is pioneering a sex-reversal process that literally turns chick embryos inside the egg from male to female.
“We transmit sound vibration during most of the incubation period, and control environmental conditions by changing the humidity and temperatures within the incubator,” says Yael Alter, CEO and Co-founder of Soos.
The eggs are stored in trays fitted with speakers that cause the eggs to vibrate during their three-week incubation. Even the researchers at Soos aren’t quite sure why it works, but they know that it increases the female percentage from 50 to as much as 80. Across the poultry world, that could translate into saving up to six billion male chicks.
Many non-mammals change their sex during the incubation period due to environmental conditions. Bearded dragons, for example, hatch as females in temperatures higher than 89 F (32 C), even if they are genetically male.
The sex of a chicken embryo isn’t determined until six days into its three-week incubation period. At that point the gonads (primary reproductive glands) either develop into ovaries or testes according to the individual’s chromosomes.
Soos exploits this by introducing sound vibration energy to the incubation period, which increases the likelihood of ovary development even among male chicks.
In other words, the chickens are still genetically male, but are biologically female.
Each “smart tray” in the hatchery is equipped with motion sensors that measure the sound vibration energy that the eggs sense, and transmission devices that transmit sound vibration to the incubated embryos. The vibration moves across the tray all the way to the eggs, making the egg a membrane transmitting the sound to the embryo.
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Nashat Haj Mohammad, Co-founder of Soos, discovered the phenomenon himself in his hometown of Kaukab Abu al-Hika, an Arab-Muslim village in the north of Israel. He manages a blood laboratory in an Israeli hospital, and raises chickens in his backyard as a pastime.
Haj Mohammad first noticed that more female chicks were hatching than males when he moved the coop near a utility pole in his yard. He initially thought it had something to do with its magnetic field. It took him five years of experiments – including placing the coop in various locations, and playing sounds at different volumes and at different times – to determine exactly which conditions led to more female chicks being born.
Alter and Haj Mohammad met at a poultry conference, and embarked on lab experiments with “layers” (egg-laying hens) in Israeli hatcheries. They spent years refining the sex-changing process.
Technologies that identify the sex of incubating eggs exist, but they require the use of expensive equipment, and the procedures can be dangerous for the egg. The most commercial technology involves making a hole in the eggshell to extract a liquid for gender identification, which can occasionally cause an infection and kill the embryo.
“The egg industry is the only one in the world that throws away 50 per cent of its annual production,” Alter tells NoCamels. “Our technology could be a game changer.”
The company’s technology has already been commercialized on an egg farm in Upstate New York, which has 1,200 “reverse chicks”, and on one of the biggest egg farms in Israel, which has 200. Their eggs aren’t marketed any differently than the ones you see in your supermarket.
Soos is also leading two R&D pilots, one with Amadori, one of the leading companies in Italy’s agro-food sector, and the other with the biggest producer of eggs in Belgium.
Soos wants to expand worldwide and have more commercial pilots to encourage the egg industry to adopt its technology. “The farmers are very conservative – if something works, it works, and they see no reason to change that,” says Alter. Within the next two years, the company wants to raise $20 million, and focus on expanding into hatcheries across the US and Europe.