What Came First? The Chicken Or The LASER?

If you’ve had a child in the last few decades, you’ve had a choice to make: if you want to know the sex of the baby ahead of time. With ultrasound you can find out or–popular these days–you can have the result sealed and have a baker create a reveal cake. Apparently, researchers at the Dresden University of Technology and the University of Leipzig wanted to do the same trick with unborn chickens.

You might wonder why anyone cares (we did). Apparently, chickens that are bred for egg laying don’t produce roosters suitable for food use. This leads to about half of the chicks being “culled” (a less ugly euphemism than gassed or shredded) and used in–among other things–animal feed. Worldwide, billions of chicks are culled each year and that’s not counting other similar situations like male turkeys and female ducks.

Determining the sex of the embryo before hatching allows the egg to be culled before the chick develops enough to have a nervous system. That’s more humane, and–presumably–doesn’t waste resources nurturing eggs that will not be used anyway.

The process involves using a LASER to cut a small hole in the top of the egg. Then near-infrared spectroscopy measures the DNA content which is about 2% higher in male embryos. The technique is 95% accurate and the eggs they keep are resealed with adhesive tape.

Honestly, we didn’t know much about chicken culling and it is unsettling to think about. This does seem more humane, although you can only wonder if industry will be willing to adopt it. We’ve talked about the food supply chain before. If you want to go off the chicken grid, maybe this will get you started.

53 thoughts on “What Came First? The Chicken Or The LASER?

      1. No, the “pink meat paste” is small trimmings of good meat that would normally be wasted in the large off-cuts from trimming fat; or so the industry says. Those trimmings, good for nothing individually, get ground up and mixed together with binder material.

        I, personally, never got the whole upset about the “pink slime” meat product. If you’ve eaten sandwich meats, you can’t convince me that turkey or ham comes in uniformly round or square slices. Sure the process is different, turkey breast isn’t usually ground before going into sandwich meats, but the binding material and end results are the same.

  1. Well the PRC (People’s Republic of China) find chicken embryos a nice delicacy. They could play to that market like how the Japanese love Dolphin meat. Uggh!

    Or someone could tell Dr. Jack Horner to red-direct his T-Rex from Chickens project to not stop at T-Rex body parts (T-Rex teeth, tails, and even hands) and do a whole living T-Rex (true story!) tinyurl . com/jyqm9e8 (remove spaces)

    https://www.ted.com/talks/jack_horner_building_a_dinosaur_from_a_chicken?language=en

      1. Queeg – (Funny!) :-)
        Probably because Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurs Rex are two DIFFERENT things. Even the prefix Veloci denotes speed. The T-Rex were allegedly not that fast a runner. The movie would have you believe they were fast (35 mph) but they were either ambush predators or as some believe now carrion-eaters. Dr. Horner believes they had feathers like a chicken too. One paleontologist believes that it’s all backwards and that the dinos CAME FROM birds not the other way around. It’s all so frustrating with all these bickering camps proving maybe no one knows what they are talking about with saurians. There may be a very astounding/stunning realization awaiting paleontologists about their subject matter. But maybe not in their lifetimes I guess.

        notarealemail – no Dr. Horner is not going to do that. He is only doing body parts like that woman Dr. that cloned a Mosasaur eye. I think he already made a chimera and released the photo to MSM. Everyone saw it and taught it was a joke by him. I don’t think it was. tinyurl.com/jyqm9e8

  2. To answer the facetious headline, in all probability the LASER existed before chickens. The universe is both old and big and a LASER is simplistic enough that it could occur naturally somewhere.

    1. Gravis – I guess you are right!
      The first “natural” laser in space was detected by scientists on board NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) as they trained the aircraft’s infrared telescope on a young, very hot, luminous star in the constellation Cygnus. Discovery of this naturally occurring laser provides scientists with a powerful tool for probing the conditions in disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars, according to Principal Investigator Vladimir Strelnitski of the Astrophysics Laboratory, National Air and Space Museum (NASM), Washington, DC, who made the discovery. Scientists believe that many of these circumsteller disks are regions where planets are forming.The laser is created as intense ultraviolet light from the star “pumps” or excites the densely packed hydrogen atoms in the gaseous, dusty disk surrounding the star. Then, when the infrared light shines on the excited hydrogen atoms, it causes the atoms to emit an intense beam of light at exactly the same wavelength, creating the circumstellar laser, according to Sean W. J. Colgan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Mountain View, CA, a co-investigator in the discovery. Source: NASA.GOV

  3. A couple of issues here, aside from a screamingly bad eugenics joke in the making.

    1.) 95% accuracy is somewhat poor and the project is doing one egg at a time over several minutes. Egg factories move a whole lot faster and I’d love to see how they’re going to do this on a commercial scale. Many marginal-to-great sensor/detection/discrimination schemes fail or die of base rate problems at speed (voice of experience).

    2.) This is corporate-funded laboratory research, not a hack (except perhaps for the little bit of eggshell that goes missing). If HAD is going to start carrying lab work too, it’s about to get a *lot* bigger.

    3.) This is just regrind from phys.org and there’s no publication link to any sort of refereed work coming out of it other than the puffery of the news release.

    1. If you think this is more efficient than just throwing a bunch of chicks in a grinder and reselling the goop to make dog food, then I guess I have a different understanding of efficiency.

      1. It’s more efficient because it disposes of the chickens at an earlier stage, eliminating the need to keep them around until they hatch. Also, it’s not trivial to determine the sex of an immature chicken.

      2. Chick sexing is difficult to learn, so chick sexers are probably a significant cost. Sexing the eggs may save the cost of sexing the chicks, especially if the machine is calibrated to err on the side of discarding.

    2. Luckily, whether something is more humane or not is in no way determined by the motive for it. It IS more humane to discard the eggs instead of the live chickens, even if it is just a side effect of a change for a more effective process.

  4. Sooner or later a rooster is likely to get culled that’s not going to change. Unlike a human a chick probably has no realization it’s about to die when it’s falling down the chute to the auger I support not creating needless suffering to the critters we use for food, but there’s little evidence animal share the same emotions humans have. I suppose eliminating brief moment of pain is human, but it doesn’t make culling more humane, for those who believe the act of culling in inhumane? Probably not.

    1. “Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.

      And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.

      This is a complete record of its thoughts from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.

      Ah … ! What’s happening? it thought.

      Er, excuse me, who am I?

      Hello?

      Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?

      What do I mean by who am I?

      Calm down, get a grip now … oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It’s a sort of … yawning, tingling sensation in my … my … well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.

      Good. Ooooh, it’s getting quite strong. And hey, what’s about this whistling roaring sound going past what I’m suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps I can call that … wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do … perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for. It must be something very important because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it. Hey! What’s this thing? This … let’s call it a tail – yeah, tail. Hey! I can can really thrash it about pretty good can’t I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn’t seem to achieve very much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on. Now – have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?

      No.

      Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation …

      Or is it the wind?

      There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?

      And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!

      I wonder if it will be friends with me?

      And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.

      Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.”

      ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    2. Watch the videos, hear them scream. They’re not all augers, they don’t all die instantly.
      Plus, a lot of places just throw them all in garbage bags and let them suffocate to death.

    3. I think a very good argument could be made that culling at the egg stage is much more humane. Now, I didn’t read the article, so I don’t know how far along the egg stage they mean. But if you could cull the egg while the embryonic rooster is still microscopic or even as small as the remaining yolk sack, it’s capability to feel pain is highly questionable making the process more humane.

  5. Caring for the lives of non-humans is a rather odd biological development. To say that other animals have little or none of this attitude therefore all cruelties of this type are acceptable for humans places humanity in the sme class as any animal preditor. Considering how much unnecesary cruelty people inflict on each other with small consideration, this is probably an acceptable viewpoint. And it is especially true of business wherein money is involved.

    There has been a good deal of research recently with strong indications that other aanimals, and esprcially birds such as crows and parrots, have all the feelings of humans and crows especially, have demonstrated intelligence equivalent to chimpanzees.

    I am of an advanced age and gave up eating meat several decades ago out of emotional disgust over the entire industry but also because modern meats are very dangerous for health with hormone and antibiotic and preservative chemicals added which are very unhealthy. I am now 90 and in good health and still quite mobile and probably most of that is out of personal genetics but perhaps a non-meat diet contributes. I grew up liking the taste of meat but not enough to die for it.

      1. There is a point in maturation when one must accept that humans differ greatly in their concern for other life and each other. Meats without poisonous chemical additives is certainly a health advance. But there may come a time when raising humans as a meat supply becomes financially profitable and no doubt there might be some objection just as today it seems acceptable to raise kids to be slaughtered in meaningless wars to profit corporate bottom lines. I am unfortunately emotionally crippled to not accept killing fellow creatures of any kind for food consumption or martial satisfaction. No doubt, with the approach of global warming and destruction of food production capabilities humans may seem more delectable but something within me objects. I even mentally apologize when I chop onions or peel a potato. Sanity in this existence is a rare state and I claim no superiority in the matter.

      2. Because I live in EU, I don’t, most of that is banned here…
        But in all seriousness, using antibiotics the way US farms do is shooting yourself in the foot, as this is perfect breeding grounds for multi-resistant strains of bacteria, which if that happens will be a major clusterfuck.
        As for hormones – depends on what and how is used. Obviously anything that stays in the meat is not good for the consumer.

      3. A hormone-free chicken would be a very sick chicken indeed.
        As for artificially injecting growth hormones and antibiotics, we must have in mind that a shot of hormone or antibiotic would cost way more than what that particular chicken could be sold for, so that just doesn´t make sense. Chicks do get vaccinated, though. The rest is just a matter of genetic selection.

    1. “therefore all cruelties of this type are acceptable for humans places humanity in the same class as any animal predator..”
      We are predators. As long as sharks stay in the water, and gorillas, lions, and tigers stay away from our guns, we will control the world we live in.

          1. My point is that that it would be essentially trivial to build an egg sorting machine that a child could do it in a few hours. And also, because, well, LEGO!

    1. If you had to genetically modify the chicken, I’d rather prefer a modification to the Y chromosome so that a rooster could only generate XX chicken and not XY (not viable). Having to eat glowing chicken in my burger makes me a bit nervous. If the “only female” were possible, then you’d avoid “creating” a life made for destruction. This is, in my humble opinion, more humane.

      1. Only the male eggs glow. The females don’t glow. That’s what makes it so good for screening on a commercial scale. You also have to have the chooks breedable so that you can continue the line after one or two roosters die. The male eggs in the video were destined to be stud chooks for breeding the screenable eggs.

      2. Well, after some more documentation, chicken use ZW system to determine sex, and unlike us, ZZ is a male, and ZW is a female. So, the glowing effect will also appear on the female, but will likely be less expressed, thus hardly visible (but present, which is not good). Anyway, if someone could figure how to prevent ZZ to survive when in nucleus, WITHOUT modifying the gene pool from the female so that the “male-sterile rooster” is the only genetically modified animal, then it would be a great advance on the market (a kind of Monsanto for chicken but with ethics in-house).

  6. when I saw the headline, I thought this was going to be an article on “laser de-beaking”!

    chicken and turkey poults have the really nasty sharp tip of their beaks cut off with a laser, so it grows rounder rather than sharper.
    sometimes I’d see one or two birds that had been missed, you really wouldn’t want to be in a barn with 10,000 big birds, that are not real fussy about what they eat, with beaks like that.

    turkey poults are sorted by by hand, just after they hatch, it was supposed to be 90% accurate, was really about 60% – 80%.

  7. Unsettling

    Yeah — many practices in the agro-food industry are pretty unsettling, in the name of rationalization, lower prices and dwindling margins. And they will become ever more unsettling as the last drops of efficiency get wrung out of the system.

    Meat, vegetarian, vegan. Dunno. But we (that’s hacker ethics) have the moral urge to *know* and *understand*. And perhaps to come up with alternatives. Even economic ones. Is there a reason that more and more income is diverted towards rent-seeking “industries” instead of towards our primary needs? (Perhaps there is, perhaps it makes sense. Perhaps not. It’s our job to think about those things).

    If you want to be unsettled, here’s a film for you (yes, they talk about chicken culling too):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Feed_the_World

    1. As far as ethics go, being able to use the eggs for food rather than hatching and killing male chicks is a win.

      We had chickens when I was growing up. We played with them, and ate them. I’ve even sutured one up after a dog attack, only to (have my mom) kill it and eat it a year later. It’s complicated. But the modern chicken plant is truly terrifying. The culled ones are the lucky ones, IMO. (Buy free-range.)

      1. > As far as ethics go, being able to use the eggs for food rather than hatching and killing male chicks is a win.

        No disagreement here. I just wanted to remind us hackers that the “technical” part is but a part of a very complex system and that it’s our duty to look beyond: whatver conclusions each comes up with.

        (your account on the sutured chicken stroke a chord and made me smile :)

        > It’s complicated.

        Yes. And understanding complex systems is our mainstay, ain’t it?

        > But the modern chicken plant is truly terrifying. The culled ones are the lucky ones, IMO.

        Ack on both points. Violent agreement!

        > (Buy free-range.)

        I do. Free range and bio. Mainly for two (interrelated) reasons: the better lives of the farmers (higher prices allow for that) and the better lives of animals and plants. Since I’m killing them to eat, I owe them something.

        My health? Not *that* important.

  8. Can’t they manipulate eggs to always develop into egg-laying birds instead of wasting half of the yield? Transgenderism is easier to achieve for birds, their cloaks usually have no significant differences and only some birds’ males have copulatory organs (which I guess wouldn’t hinder their egg-laying ability).

  9. By my count, they’re missing 2 weeks in the reporting of this. They say they do the technique on eggs that have been incubated for 3 days. Later they say that a chick hatches a few days after the procedure. It takes 21 days to hatch a chick, so I’m assuming “a few days” in this case is 19?

    I also wish they’d said if the 5% inaccuracy is split evenly between false negatives and false positives. If they’re dumping 10% of their potential laying hens, that’s hugely inefficient. If they reduce the number of males hatched to 10% of what it was, that’s great.

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