AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program researcher spotlight: Priscilla Gerber

05.05.20

We’re shining the research torch on Priscilla Gerber, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England. The broad objective of this project is to determine whether testing of non-invasive population level samples such as chicken excreta and dust samples collected from poultry houses provide practical, affordable and useful tools to monitor important gut health disruptors such as coccidia and necrotic enteritis. It will also investigate if microbiota profiles measured by high-throughput sequencing in dust and excreta provide a signature that correlates with good or poor flock performance.

Why is this research project important?
Chicken gut health greatly impacts poultry productivity, animal welfare, and food safety. Coccidia and necrotic enteritis, two of the most important gut pathogens in meat chickens, cost more than US$9 billion to the chicken industry every year.

Despite the great importance of monitoring gut health more broadly, current methods to assess it require the post-mortem examination of a large number of birds and the high testing costs make its application limited to research settings. Monitoring of coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis in commercial flocks also requires post-mortem examination of a great number of birds. Current diagnosis based on gross pathology can be subjective and clouds the evaluation of on-farm control strategies. Because of those difficulties, flock gut health on commercial farms is usually measured indirectly using metrics such as feed conversion rates, which can be greatly impacted by many other factors.

The establishment of practical population level tools to directly monitor changes in gut health instead of relying on indirect measurements such as flock performance, or very expensive diagnostics based on individual chickens, would allow a more rational and informed assessment of management interventions targeting gut health.

Why did you get involved in the project?
The main motivation for my research is to find solutions for problems that directly impact livestock producers. Current advances in gut microbiome research and the modulation of gut health through probiotics and other products has sparked great interest in the poultry industry and yet these research tools are not readily applicable to commercial flocks. This project was envisioned through conversations with industry collaborators, and with poultry gut health experts and diagnosticians at RMIT (Rob Moore) and UNE (Shubiao Wu and Steve Walkden-Brown) that are equally enthusiastic in translating research findings to industry settings.

How will this research benefit the chicken meat industry?
Findings from this work have the potential to provide applied tools to manage flock gut health in commercial flocks. The use of non-invasive samples that are representative of a population such as chicken excreta and dust samples have major advantages over traditional individual sampling. These include requiring a small number of samples to represent a population, and therefore a reduction in costs, and the ease of collection.

These tools have the potential to aid in the testing of new products to improve gut health under field conditions; to ensure widespread, rational implementation and evaluation of disease prevention strategies and a reduction in the therapeutic use of antibiotics; and to predict production performance.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?
Building a great team of people with complementary skillsets is much more important than trying to “know it all”. In my own experience, working together in collaborative teams increases the chances of finding more meaningful solutions to the complex and perplexing issues that the livestock industries face.

Read more about this project and the AgriFutures Chicken Meat Program: agrifutures.com.au/chicken-meat/

 

Dr Priscilla Gerber