UMD Researchers Study Metabolism and Liver Function in Embryonic Chickens and Hatchlings

Implications for Poultry Production, Welfare, and Liver Disease

May 7, 2021 Samantha Watters

Nishanth E. Sunny, assistant professor in Animal and Avian Sciences (ANSC) at the University of Maryland (UMD), is leading a team to improve poultry production by examining the mysteries of embryonic and new-born chickens, with a long term goal of improving both animal and human health. The first week after hatch is a major indicator of how healthy a chicken will be and how well the bird will grow, and it is during this time that the birds undergo a dramatic metabolic switch, from the fat-rich diet the embryos grow in, to a high carbohydrate diet. This is a natural and healthy transition for most chicks, whereas a high fat diet in several species and humans leads to serious metabolic consequences such as fatty liver disease and Type II diabetes. 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 insights into how the liver works to help prevent metabolic disease in other animals and humans.

“When you think about the egg, it basically consists of yolk, which is a ball of fat and proteins, surrounded by the egg white,” explains Sunny. “So when an embryonic chicken is in the later stages of development inside the egg, it relies on the egg yolk for energy and rapidly accumulates fat in the liver. Why that’s interesting is that 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. They are very efficient in using the yolk lipids, metabolizing it, and generating energy. The goal of this new grant is to understand how the liver of the embryonic chicken uses all those fatty yolk nutrients without the generation of toxic lipid byproducts or disease, by understanding the metabolic transition in chickens.” 

Tom Porter, professor in ANSC at UMD, is a co-investigator with Sunny on the new grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), bringing his years of experience studying poultry physiology and genetic expression to the table. Porter has previous USDA-NIFA funding to examine the genetic mechanisms of the metabolic switch from embryos to hatchlings. This switch has implications for the welfare of the chick, as well as its growth potential.

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