One of the atrocities of industrialized agriculture is the egg industry’s killing of male chicks. Each year, more than 6 billion male chicks are killed worldwide, up to 300 million of them in the U.S.1 The reasoning behind this abhorrent practice is at the root of what is wrong with corporate agriculture — egg-laying hens are bred to lay eggs, and nothing more.
Because males cannot produce eggs, and don’t grow enough meat to make them useful for human consumption (as opposed to broiler chickens, bred to grow unnaturally large), they would cost more to raise than they would be “worth.” With complete disregard for life, egg producers therefore “cull” the males, or kill them off, shortly after birth, sending them to be used as pet feed, livestock feed or simply filler for landfills.
A team of Israeli scientists has now filed a concept patent that involves genetically engineering hens to pass on a lethality, or killer, gene to male embryos, which would eliminate them before they hatch.2 While it’s clear that the practice of killing male chicks must end, this biotech “solution” could end up creating far more problems than it solves.
GE Hens Pass on Lethal Gene to Male Embryos
The patent, which was filed with the State of Israel Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development listed as the applicant, and Yuval Cinnamon and Enbal Ben-Tal Cohen as the inventors,3 uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, to insert a foreign gene — the lethality gene — into the male sex Z chromosome.4
The genetically engineered (GE) hen would pass the lethality gene — which is supposed to only be activated by blue light — onto all male embryos. Once the eggs are laid, blue light would then be used to activate the lethality gene and kill all of the male embryos in-ovo, or in the egg.
This will likely be presented as a more “humane” approach, but it comes with significant risks, including to the hen, because the lethality gene is likely to produce highly toxic protein. According to GM Watch:5
“In order to ensure reliable killing of the male chick embryos at an early stage of their development, the lethality gene that the developers insert will have to be highly toxic.
The various lethality-inducing proteins mentioned in the patent that are supposed to work by inhibiting growth/development (paragraphs 0156, 0157) or essential signalling pathways, such as “bone morphogenetic protein antagonist” or “RNA-guided DNA endonuclease enzyme” (paragraphs 0159, 0160), may be too uncertain in their effects.
Therefore the developer will almost certainly choose to use a known highly toxic element — such as genes encoding for diphtheria toxin or ricin toxin, both of which are specifically mentioned in paragraph 0158 as possible candidates for the lethal gene.
The fact that the authors illustrate their concept using a diphtheria toxin lethality gene, albeit within the context of in vitro tissue culture cell experiments (Figure 24A), supports this line of thinking.”
Further, the patent does not restrict the lethal gene to the types named, which means the scientists could use virtually anything, such as a gene encoding cholera toxin.