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New wheat for healthy chicken bones

Researchers say they have come up with a special wheat that could reduce the need for feed supplements while at the same time provide key nutrients that promote healthy bones in poultry.

In a joint effort between researchers at Nottingham Trent University in England and Aarhus University in Denmark, the focus was on developing a bird with a strong bone structure. It was the scientists at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University that discovered that wheat can be bred naturally to produce high levels of phytase, an enzyme needed to release phosphorous, which the bird requires to grow a healthy skeleton. While the Danish developed the wheat, the group in Nottingham tested it at the university’s own poultry research unit.

Photo: Bart Nijs
Photo: Bart Nijs

Phosphorous: A key component

Over the past 50 years the poultry industry has been successful in achieving excellent growth rates for birds but now the focus is on ensuring that a healthy, well-developed skeletal frame is produced. Nutritionists have tackled this issue through supplements, to ensure the correct mineral balance in the diet. A key component is phosphorous, a mineral found in plant tissues, grains and oil seeds and which is vital for skeletal growth and maintenance.

However, not only is phosphorous supplementation very expensive but also the phosphorous, from plant sources, present in the feed of poultry and pigs has a very low bio-availability, being bound up in a plant substance called phytate.

Phosphorous bound in phytate cannot be utilised by these monogastric animals because they have negligible amounts of the phytase enzyme in their gastrointestinal tract, which is needed to make the phosphorous from phytate bioavailable. This anti-nutritional effect of phytate is estimated to cost animal producers up to £1.3bn (€1.5bn) a year. In addition to this, phytate-bound phosphorous which is excreted can have a negative impact on the environment, such as via eutrophication.

Wheat with high phytase content

For the latest work, the plant-breeding scientists from Aarhus University used their expertise to make it simple and efficient to breed wheat with naturally high levels of phytase. Scientists in Nottingham Trent University’s poultry nutrition research team then designed and carried out a poultry nutrition trial to compare this new source of phytase to traditional poultry diet formulations. The trial shows that inclusion of the high phytase wheat in the feed is a highly effective way of unlocking the phosphorous in the diet for use by the animal.

Dr Henrik Brinch-Pedersen, the group leader at Aarhus University, said: “Aiming for high phytase activity in wheat grains has been a key research target for many years. Reaching it was a milestone, but seeing that it works well in animal feeding is extremely satisfactory. A particularly exciting additional implication of this work may actually be for humans. 700 million people globally suffer from anaemia partly caused by the high phytate content of their diet. Providing a variety of wheat that contains its own phytate-destruction enzyme could improve the population health of many nations.”

Further possibilities explored

Dr Emily Burton, head of the poultry research unit in Nottingham Trent University, added: “It has been exciting to explore a completely different way of providing meat chickens with the phosphorous needed for healthy bones. We will be looking to explore further the possibilities of wheat-derived phytase, as emerging research in this field shows the anti-nutritional effects of phytate in poultry extends far beyond locking away phosphorous.”

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