special edition: novel proteins

US team looks to get feed proteins and enzymes from microalgae

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/MJPS
© GettyImages/MJPS

Related tags Poultry novel protein Usda microalgae

US researchers are seeking to generate feed proteins and enzymes from microalgae as part of a larger goal of improving the sustainability of US broiler production.

The US Department of Agriculture awarded a $9.95m, five-year grant​ to Cornell University and the University of Arkansas along with partnering institutions to explore ways to develop poultry feed ingredients and improve water use during poultry production.

The multi-university research group is exploring ways to improve broiler production including assessing microalgae as an alternative protein ingredient to replace a portion of soybean meal in broiler feed, said Xingen Lei, co-principal investigator and professor in the department of animal science at Cornell. Globally there continues to be a need for more protein and that trend is going to continue.

“Poultry and eggs have become the most widely consumed … source of protein around the world,”​ he told FeedNavigator.

In the US, the industry earned $45bn in revenue in 2018 and raised 9bn chickens, but also used 45bn kilograms of feed and accounted for about 44% of the soybean meal used in feed, he added.

The work exploring microalgae use with poultry production is set to involve several elements including using selected strains of microalgae to generate enzymes that can be used in feed and using microalgae as an alternative protein feed ingredient, he said.

“One of the other goals will be trying to scale up the application of microalgae so it’s not only staying at the experimental stage,”​ he added.

In addition, the multi-phase study is also set to include efforts to reduce the health challenges like “leaky gut”​ caused by some common diet ingredients, the researchers said in their project proposal. Studies will be run with both commercially produced species and slow-growing poultry lines.

The sustainable agricultural systems project also considers how to make novel technologies more acceptable for producers and is set to provide market analysis, Lei said. “It’s different from what we’d have done in the past – it’s more from the holistic, systematic approach perspective,” ​he added.

Microalgae in feed

Preliminary work to develop strains of microalgae that generate feed enzymes has already started, said Lei. The microalgae will act as a vehicle to produce feed enzymes.

Once they have been generated they will be used in poultry feeding trials, he said.

The enzymes also are intended to help degrade feathers into a high-quality protein ingredient for use in feed, help convert poultry waste into biofuel, gather nutrients in poultry litter and help improve the nutritional quality of poultry meat by increasing levels of unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D, the researchers said.

Another piece of the project seeks to use commercially available DHA-rich microalgae as an ingredient in poultry feed and to help improve the nutritional quality of poultry meat by increasing levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D, Lei said. There is also interest in working with microalgae companies to research additional products.

“Realistically microalgae cannot replace soybean in terms of price at the moment on a one to one protein base” ​he said. “If you only just replace soybeans that’s not possible at this moment.”

The project looks at poultry production and microalgae use at three levels, he said. The first is the feed level, where it may not be immediately feasible to replace a common feed protein like soybean with microalgae because of the cost.

However, if microalgae could be used to provide vitamins, bioactive compounds like DHA and EPA or improve bird health and reduce bird loss or the need for antibiotic use then it might be possible to gain a higher profit from the chicken, he said.

“The second way is to look at the health values – if we can produce chicken that is health-promoting to humans we can offset the cost on that end and if, at the same time, we’re also improving animal health and saving the cost of losing animals and so on, that is a sort of intermediate kind of potential,” ​said Lei. “Then the third level of consideration is environmental and climate impact if we feed microalgae and we can put all the technology together we’re trying to develop in this proposal – to recycle the nutrients and reduce CO2 and the carbon footprint – then we may also be rewarded from the government or from the consumers.”

However, financial return for the improved environmental footprint may take a longer time to establish, he added.

Additional project goals   

In addition to work with microalgae, the research project is seeking to develop broiler lines that have better water efficiency and to determine if birds that are more water-efficient are also more tolerant to heat stress, the researchers said in their project proposal. The use of environmental enrichment to improve efficiency while reducing bone and muscle disorders will be checked.

Another part of the project is set to explore poultry facilities, including work to improve the efficiency of water use as a cooling agent in poultry houses during high-temperature conditions, they said.   

Looking longer-term, the project is intended to improve the awareness of and educational opportunities in poultry science and sustainable agriculture, they said.  

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