How can animal welfare in agriculture be improved? And how do you reliably uncover abuses in the supply chain? These are questions that producers, inspectors, traders and especially consumers are asking themselves. One possible solution comes from the relatively young science of epigenetics. It investigates how external influences affect the activity of individual genes and what lasting traces they leave behind. This is constantly bringing to light new connections between environmental factors and diseases, for example. At Creavis, we also want to find out where meat products come from and how the animals were raised.
Patterns in meat
Our Epigenetic Team at Creavis has developed an epigenetic chip in cooperation with Illumina, a leading provider of genome analysis systems. Using this chip and modern bioinformatics, we can now evaluate the epigenome of chickens particularly quickly and cost-effectively. This overall picture of the accumulated changes in gene activity then provides information on how positive or negative factors, for example in husbandry, have affected animal welfare. In this way, breeding, husbandry, and the like can be optimized in a more targeted manner.
Above all, however, it is possible to check in retrospect whether the husbandry conditions certified by an organic seal, for example, were actually adhered to. In principle, any tissue sample will do. Even processed meat products can be reliably checked along the supply chain. Creavis has already proven this: Origin, husbandry or the administration of growth-promoting antibiotics leave clear patterns in the epigenome.
Artificial intelligence helps
To this end, we have created an archive of millions of data points from the epigenetic analyses of chickens from all over the world. This allows our bioinformaticians to use artificial intelligence to match samples and identify patterns in the epigenome at any time. As a business incubator, we are now developing this process at Creavis into a market-ready technology. "It is important to then turn ideas into reality so that they generate benefits," says Florian Böhl, responsible for Diagnostics and New Business Development at Creavis. To do this, we combine our own, external, and internal know-how, for example from the Animal Nutrition Business Line and Evonik's biotechnology cluster.
Tools for practical application
The aim is to develop epigenetic analysis into a tool that is as practical and marketable as possible. This holds great potential for meat producers who want to improve animal welfare themselves. But the technology could also be used in the validation of certain quality and organic labels. From farmers, meat processors and retail chains, to animal and consumer advocates and consumers, many have an interest in a scientifically sound method of measuring meat quality and animal welfare. In the end, the animals themselves also benefit.