Hatching a Chick in a Cup: Can you do it and how?
Some time ago a group of Japanese high school student’s video went viral. The video showed them cracking chicken eggs into cups and then popping out fully developed chicks. The sensationalism of the video made it a hit but showed nothing of the process or how they actually achieved their results. It left a lot of people wondering, was this really possible? When a friend first showed me the video, being the chicken nerd that I am, I decided I needed to investigate to find out how realistic this actually is. Can a backyard breeder actually achieve the same results?
Can you do it?
I would provide a link to the video if I could but the original was taken down some time ago. However if you search “hatching chicks in a cup” on YouTube you can find a few copies of the video along with some translations. I have heard it claimed (both on YouTube translations and in other articles) that this is the first time that this has been done which seems to be false. This process has been studied elsewhere prior to when the video went viral. As it turns out this experiment has been researched and studied to a greater degree in Japan. The popularity of the video in the U.S. is mostly because we have never seen anything like this before. So how feasible is this actually? According to the Professor of Poultry Science at Mississippi State University, E. David Peebles, who was quoted in a CNBC article on the video, it is possible but difficult and will never match the success of the natural processes (Ferris, CNBC.com.) This sentiment is one constant throughout many of the articles and research that has been done on the subject. Artificial means can be used to hatch a chick but they have not yet seen the success rate of natural environments.
The primary research that has been done on the subject of chicken embryos being incubated outside shells with plastic cups as culture vessels is in an article published in Japan's Poultry Science Association’s Journal of Poultry Science. The article, titled “A Novel Shell-less Culture System for Chick Embryos Using a Plastic Film as Culture Vessels” is written by Yutaka Tahara and Katsuya Obara, and describes an experiment they performed using some plastic food wrap, calcium supplements, a plastic cup, and distilled water. The experiment looked at the best culture systems for development as well as how long the experimenters should wait to transfer the embryo into the artificial substrate.
Practically speaking then how would an average person go about replicating this experiment? In the article they describe well the different solutions and supplements they used to imitate the natural processes. Most of these are relatively feasible, some a little less so. However, after a little digging, I also found a page published by the University of Connecticut Extension services for 4-H members that describes this same experiment. It uses a much more simplified version of the set up described in the Tahara and Obara article and one would then assume that it would have a lower percentage of hatchability. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work though. In the results of their study Tahara and Obara found that a few key factors severely affected the hatchability in their eggs.
- It was important to eliminate wrinkles in the plastic film as that often caused the embryos to die.
- Supplemental Calcium in the bottom of the plastic wrap was found to help increase hatchability. (in this experiment they used 250-300 mg of calcium lactate powder, which is an easy to get calcium supplement that a lot of people add in their food)
- Oxygenation was found to be a problem in the later stages of development so experimenters provided pure oxygen.
- Researchers found that eggs that were incubated in-shell for the first 55-56 hours had the best results with 70% hatchability. Eggs transferred between 48-50 hours showed a sharp drop in hatchability and those moved after 60 hours of incubation were hard to transfer without breaking the vitelline membrane.So if you wanted to recreate the experiment shown in the video I have developed a theoretical set up that should produce the best hatchability while not requiring a lab.In broader terms being able to hatch chicks outside of their shells would give us greater abilities to manipulate genes, create transgenic organisms, and give us a better idea of the development processes that an embryo goes through (Tahara, Obara, p1.) All of these are well and good for poultry science people but what about backyard breeders and raisers? For the hobby breeder and casual chicken wrangler being able to raise a chicken outside its shell can be helpful in a pinch. Sometimes in incubator transfers eggs get dropped. If you are working with a rare breed or very expensive eggs being able to salvage a damaged baby would be a lifesaver. Also it is easier to quickly and accurately diagnose hatching problems if you can physically see the chick. You would be able to immediately tell if the chick has absorbed all of the yolk and if the veins have receded. You would also know ahead of time if the chick is in malposition and can prepare to assist with hatching if necessary. Not to mention being able to directly observe the embryonic development of chick is the sort of hands on learning experience that not everyone gets.
What you will need:
- Plastic see-through cup
- Food wrap
- Calcium lactate powder
- Distilled water
- Cotton ball
- Fertilized egg, incubated for between 55 and 56 hours preferably
Food wrap that has high oxygen permeability or one that is advertised as so would be the best variety as it will allow the embryo to “breath” and exchange gases. Calcium lactate powder is sometimes used as a calcium supplement for humans and I have been able to find it on Amazon.com. I’m not sure if you would be able to find it in drugstores or not. Distilled water is important because normal tap water has some contaminants in it that could be dangerous for a developing embryo with a weak immune system. Also we are trying to replicate lab conditions and distilled water will keep the experiment as sterile as possible.
Setting up our Experiment:
The most important thing to remember in doing this experiment is that we are taking away one of the chick’s biggest defense systems against germs: the shell. Therefore we need to make sure absolutely everything is sterilized and totally clean in our system. Wash your hands plenty while setting up your culture system. We can start with our plastic cup base. Cut a small hole in the side of the cup and plug this with the cotton ball. This will allow oxygenation for the embryo while the cotton acts as a filter, keeping out bacteria and other foreign particles. Researchers, when performing this experiment, found that the embryos weren't getting enough oxygen and added a small tube in this hole as well to provide pure oxygen. While that is probably not feasible it is something to keep in mind.
Now we can fill the bottom of the cup with our distilled water. It would be interesting to see someone test whether regular distilled water or a highly diluted saline solution, more similar to the solution used in the Japanese study, would increase hatchability. After we have our cup set up we can shape our plastic wrap. We want to get a smooth, egg shape with no wrinkles so that the embryo can easily breathe through it. Gently stretching our plastic wrap over a regular egg should achieve this. Cut a square of the plastic wrap off and place it over top of the egg. Grip two opposing sides of the plastic and gently pull them down over the egg. Rotate the plastic and grip the other two opposing sides and stretch them down so you have a perfect concave egg shape.
At the bottom of our plastic cup place 40 ml or a little more than eight teaspoons of distilled water. Another possible variable in the experiment would be to use a saline solution which is more similar to the solution used in the lab. At this point we can place the shaped plastic wrap in the cup. Lay it so the indentation is inside of the cup. Attach the plastic wrap to the top of the cup with a rubber band or some tape and make sure it’s secure so it doesn’t fall down during incubation. In the bottom of the plastic wrap if you have calcium lactate powder to use as a calcium substitute you’ll want to place barely a pinch of it (250-300mg or approximately 1/20th of a teaspoon, so a really small amount.) This would be another great variable to test, how necessary the presence of calcium substitute is to hatchability and how much is ideal. After your calcium powder add half a teaspoon of distilled water. This is in keeping with the lab tests however I might surmise that this water was added to dissolve the calcium powder and make it more digestible. I’m unsure how necessary it is; another variable.
I attached here a diagram of the artificial environment before the addition of an embryo.
A. Calcium Lactate powder
B. Distilled water
C. Hole to allow for oxygenation and cotton filter
D. Severely diluted saline solution or plain distilled water
E. Plastic food wrap with high degree of oxygen permeability
F. Plastic food wrap cover with some ventilation holes
G. Plastic cup
When transferring the embryos from their shells to the artificial means it is important to have a completely sterile environment, sanitize both the shells and your hands. You should incubate the eggs in their new culture vessels at an angle and rotate them daily as you would with normal incubation. Similarly you should keep all other standards of humidity and temperature as you would normally.
However this method of hatching out is obviously in its first stages of development and I would not recommend using it to begin hatching out batches of birds. As the studies found hatchability in the artificial membranes was 57.1% compared to the 70% of intact shells (Tahara, Obara, p3-4.) And I know that a lot of backyard breeders are able to achieve much higher than 70% hatchability in their incubators. Clearly then this method is not a long term solution.
Nature made egg shells near perfect at their jobs. Humans have been able to come somewhat close to this with a little science and some basic knowledge of embryonic development. But until we can perfectly replicate the natural processes this isn’t going to be a large scale solution and it’s doubtful if it ever will. However it does have some use and it’s an interesting thing to study. Does anyone have some hatching eggs they want to let me experiment with?
Andacht et al. “Rapid and improved method for windowing eggs accessing the stage X chicken embryo.” Journal of Molecular Reproduction and Development, Vol. 69 (2004)
Tahara, Yutaka. Obara, Katsuya. “A Novel Shell-Less Culture System for Chick Embryos Using a Plastic Film as Culture Vessels.” The Japanese Poultry Science Association Journal of Poultry Science, Vol. 51, no. 3 (2014)
Darre, Michael J. “Observing the Growth of Chick Embryos Outside the Shell.” University of Connecticut, Cooperative Extension System, http://web.uconn.edu/poultry/4-H%20Poultry/invitro_inset.html
Ferris, Robert. “Did Japanese students really hatch a chick outside a shell?” CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/08/did-japanese-students-really-hatch-a-chick-outside-a-shell.html
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