Green Eggs, No Sham

Author: Emily Malone
Publication Date: Wednesday, 15 Jan 2014

Dr Nigel Urwin.Dr Seuss might have made them famous, but Charles Sturt University (CSU) researchers hope that 'green eggs' may improve animal welfare in layer hen operations.

"At the moment there's no simple, cost effective way of determing the sex of a chick until it's hatched so day-old male layer chicks are mass culled," said Dr Nigel Urwin, a Senior Lecturer in Genetics at CSU.

Dr Urwin's research, through CSU's School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and Graham Centre, aims to produce chickens that have been genetically modified with a green fluroescent protein that will allow the sex of the developing embryo to be determined inside the egg.

"This protein is originally found in jellyfish and glows green under ultraviolet light," said Dr Urwin.

"We're trying to put that gene into chickens, specifically into one of the sex chromosomes, so for example only the skin of female chicks would glow under that light."

Dr Urwin said determining the sex of the chick very early on in its development has benefits for animal welfare and the bottom line of the egg industry.

"The whole egg industry is automated and ideally for a sex determination method you need something that's very quick, very cheap and can be done on a conveyor belt as you pass eggs into or out of an incubator," he said.

"It takes 21 days for an egg to hatch and if you can avoid incubating eggs that have male chicks there's potentially big savings for producers."

International collaboration

Dr Urwin and PhD student Mr Emmanuel Quansah have already demonstrated that the green fluorescent protein is expressed in cells in culture.

The next step is producing a genetically modified chicken with the gene. Mr Emmanuel Quansah.Mr Emmanuel Quansah.

Mr Quansah will spend the next six months at the Animal Biosciences and Biotechnology Lab of the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Maryland USA.

"The USDA has one of the best poultry research facilities in the world with expertise in artificial insemination," said Mr Quansah.

"I've created DNA constructs with the gene which produces the green fluorescent protein. That will be inserted into sperm collected from a rooster and we'll artificially inseminate the hens. Hopefully some of the chicks will then have the gene in the sex chromosome."

Originally from Ghana, it was the idea of working on this research project that enticed Mr Quansah to study his PhD through CSU's School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in Wagga Wagga.

"As person interested in all aspects of chicken production, I'm enthusiastic about this research given its direct application and impact on global poultry production and welfare," he said.

Consumer acceptance

Dr Urwin concedes that even if the research is successful, industry adoption will depend upon public acceptance of genetically modified chickens.

"In this world nothing's perfect and you've got to weigh up whether you prefer to destroy billions of male day-old chicks or to have a genetically modified line of chicken and be able to tell the sex early in development, thus solving the problem?" said Dr Urwin "I personally would prefer to eat the products of genetically modified chickens."

In Dr Seuss' poem "Greens eggs and ham" the character Sam starts off not liking green eggs and ham but eventually changes his mind.

When it comes to chickens modified with a green fluorescent protein gene, Dr Urwin is hoping consumers will also accept the change.

Listen to Dr Urwin here.


Add Audio Player | CSU News


Media contact: Emily Malone, (02) 6933 2207

Media Note:
Contact CSU Media to arrange interviews. Dr Nigel Urwin is based at CSU’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in Wagga Wagga and is available for interview. Mr Emmanuel Quansah is currently based at the Animal Biosciences and Biotechnology Lab of the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Maryland USA. His PhD is titled “Generation of transgenic chickens with the green fluorescent protein reporter gene in the female (W) specific chromosomes and its application in sex determination”.