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Project Examines Switch From High-fat to High-carb Diet in Newly Hatched Chickens

By Samantha Watters

A University of Maryland researcher is leading a team examining the mysteries of embryonic and newborn chickens—a project that could improve poultry production and benefit both animal and human health.

Supported by a $500,000 award from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Nishanth E. Sunny, assistant professor of animal and avian sciences, is studying a transition that occurs in the first week after hatch, when chickens undergo a dramatic metabolic switch, from the fat-rich diet the embryos grow in to a high-carbohydrate diet.

By understanding this metabolic transition that is so critical for healthy and efficient poultry production, researchers can not only optimize nutrition to make that transition as smooth as possible, but also gain insight into how the liver works to help prevent metabolic disease in other animals and humans.

“Accumulation of fat in humans and other mammals like mice is related to metabolic disease. But in embryonic chickens, they never seem to develop these issues,” Sunny said. “They are very efficient in using the yolk lipids, metabolizing it and generating energy.”

The project is also looking into why about 1-2% of chicks that are given everything they need post-hatch never grow, said co-investigator Tom Porter, a professor of animal and avian sciences.

“While that sounds like a small amount, when you think of the scale of the industry, this translates to millions of birds a year that could be performing much better, but instead aren’t really growing even with the same amount of feed, time and resources.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 9 billion birds were produced in 2019, meaning up to 180 million birds each year are affected.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.