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Developing probiotics to help chickens grow

F

ood security is one of the biggest issues facing African countries, with the United Nations’ 2017 report on world food security and nutrition revealing that 243 million Africans go to bed hungry.

This staggering figure emphasises the importance of food security initiatives such as the one being undertaken by a team of six Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) scientists who are working on developing a probiotic for use in broiler production.

Broilers are chickens raised for meat, while probiotics are live micro-organisms that help improve gut health.

The team is led by 33-year-old Ghaneshree Moonsamy, who is a senior researcher in bioprocess development at the CSIR Biosciences Unit.

She established her career as a researcher 12 years ago when she joined the CSIR as an in-service trainee.

“I was doing my undergraduate studies with the Durban University of Technology when I joined the CSIR in 2006 and I have been here ever since. This year I have just handed in my PhD thesis and if I pass, I will become Dr Moonsamy,” she said.

Micro-organisms

Moonsamy’s job entails developing production processes for bacterial micro-organisms or products of micro-organisms.

“If there is a particular need for a product, we find the micro-organisms that can do the job; we look at how we can preserve them so that we can use them continously without changing their state and how to make more of those micro-organisms,” she explained.

For the past three years, Moonsamy’s team has been working on developing probiotics for broiler production, using micro-organisms that exist within the African climate for African-grown chickens.

After spending considerable time investigating what is called the “mode of action of these probiotics”, by 2017 they were confident that they had a good population of organisms that could confer the desired probiotic effect.

This year, the team focused on making the final product, putting it into chicken feed and testing the feed on chickens.

“The aim is for the chickens to consume less feed but to grow more,” she said.

Preliminary results

Moonsamy added that they tested the product in a 35-day trial and also ran a test in chickens that had a common chicken disease to see if the probiotic would help them thrive.

The results were positive, which means that the preliminary results are exciting.

“Based on the preliminary results, our product really improves the amount of body weight that chickens gain,” she said, explaining that even the sick chickens that did not eat properly recorded an average daily weight gain as a result of the probiotics.

Moonsamy said this was good for broiler chicken farming because the farmers will eventually use less feed for their chicken, yet the chickens will grow bigger.

She has just returned from an international conference and said she learned that the European Union (EU) takes what goes into animal production very seriously. This is because it is aware that what you feed animals eventually becomes food for humans.

“They understand the importance of knowing the full effect of additives on the animal because they do not want anything harmful to be end up being consumed by people,” Moonsamy said, adding that in some international markets, like the EU, there has been a total ban on the use of antibiotics in chickens.

She said this would influence her future work.

Growth benefits

Currently in South Africa, antibiotics are still being widely used in chickens, not only to fight diseases but sometimes even to expedite growth.

Moonsamy stressed that a probiotic is not medication like an antibiotic but rather a natural food supplement that is a good chicken feed additive, regardless of whether the chickens are healthy or diseased.

She said that so far, the probiotics have proved to have growth benefits and the next part of the study will thoroughly investigate health impacts.

Adding probiotics to the chicken feed should not significantly affect the market price.

“We are good at developing high-performing production processes and the costs are much lower than an imported product. But if we cannot meet the brief based on pure costs, then we go to the minimum cost that we can accommodate,” she said.

Feed is one of the biggest chicken production costs so if chicken producers are able to use less feed but get their chickens to grow more, it will improve farming efficiency.

The research and development process is nearing conclusion and should results from the animal trial be positive, the product will be taken into commercial-scale development.

She added that this will involve researching ways to produce large quantities of the probiotic to meet market demand.

Future research

A project involving probiotics for pigs could be undertaken next, because both chickens and pigs have simple, single-chambered stomachs, which means the research can be more easily adapted for pigs than, for example, cows, goats or sheep, which have four-chambered complex stomachs. Moonsamy said that a probiotic for broiler chickens was the first land-based probiotic researched; they had previously developed probiotics for aquaculture.

“Before we do our research and development, we must find out from the market if there is a need for the products that we will be developing,” she explained.

At the CSIR, the Biosciences Unit works with the class of micro-organisms called bacillus. It is like a particular population within all micro-organisms and has added advantages over other micro-organisms, she said.

Moonsamy added that they can produce the bacillus in high amounts and can subsequently introduce it into stable products.

“We have more than 300 of these organisms that we have isolated from around South Africa,” she said, explaining that they constantly seek new uses for these organisms to benefit the food production industry and ultimately help address food security.

The team received funding through a parliamentary research and development grant.

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