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Researchers’ Egg Vaccines Protect Billions of Chickens

By Hank Becker
December 17, 1997

Technology developed to vaccinate chicks against disease before they hatch is now being used in a big way: to help produce billions of broiler chickens.

Automated systems that inject vaccines in chicken embryos in eggshells were pioneered a decade ago in laboratories of the Agricultural Research Service in East Lansing, Mich. Their wide-scale use is among the latest signals that increased ARS-industry cooperation has brought more new technology to the marketplace.

In the 1980’s, ARS poultry scientists in East Lansing were first to develop a way to vaccinate chicken embryos--inside the eggshell--against Marek’s disease. The disease attacks the bird’s nervous system and can kill it. The procedure, plus work by other ARS scientists, led to a plan by Embrex, Inc., of Research Triangle Park, N.C., to use egg injection to innoculate 20,000 to 50,000 eggs per hour.

Embrex obtained exclusive license to ARS’ egg-injection technology and, in 1987, entered a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with ARS. This was the first CRADA between any private company and government lab under the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986. The act allowed more flexibility in federal-industry R&D.

Embrex and Tyson Foods, Inc., recently agreed to use the technology to inject more than 2.5 billion chickens a year. U.S. commercial broiler production in 1996 was 7.6 billion birds.

An ARS-Embrex team has tested potential in-the-eggshell vaccines for avian coccidiosis, another poultry disease. ARS and Embrex have signed other CRADAs to expand the technology to protect chickens from salmonella and other diseases. In 1992, Embrex introduced an automated system devised by improving on ARS’ patented technology. The system inoculates up to 45,000 eggs per hour. Tyson was the first producer to install it in a commercial hatchery.

According to Embrex, automated egg-injection saves the U.S. poultry industry about $70 million a year. Almost two-thirds of U.S. broiler chickens are vaccinated with the systems. They are used by 126 North American hatcheries.

Scientific contact: Michael D. Ruff, ARS deputy assistant administrator, Office of Technology Transfer, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-6905, fax (301) 504-5060,