The selection process is underway for a firm to create the architectural design for a new poultry science building estimated to break ground in 2022 on the University of Georgia’s South Campus.
The $60 million project will expand research capabilities and opportunities for researchers in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to collaborate with partners including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Poultry Research Center in Athens, as well as UGA’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center. In addition to public funding, CAES is seeking to raise $27 million in the first phase of private funding for the project.
“Private support for this new facility will help ensure that our faculty remain leaders in their fields,” said Mary Ann Parsons, senior director of development for CAES. “This support creates an incentive for trail-blazing students to study poultry science at UGA, helps deliver transformative research to the world and paves the way for new research partnerships that support the industry, create new businesses and generate new jobs.”
The prospect of a new facility within the next four years is an exciting one for Laura Ellestad, assistant professor in the Department of Poultry Science and a member of the steering committee for the new building.
Ellestad recently received a $475,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to identify the biological mechanisms in broiler chickens that regulate bird growth and metabolism. The research is critical to the poultry industry due to regulatory changes and shifts in consumer preference that have led to an increase in antibiotic-free agricultural production, including that of broiler chickens.
“For the past 50 years, producers have been using various antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in all of animal agriculture to help increase meat and milk production. However, even when the tools became available, little work was done to see how or why using these antibiotics was working,” Ellestad said.
Without the use of antibiotics, growth rates in broiler chickens can be inconsistent and less efficient, causing potential production losses.
“We don’t know whether they are preventing pathogens from taking hold in broilers or how they improve growth efficiency. With antibiotics, birds were growing bigger and more efficiently for the same amount of feed given to them. Now there are inconsistencies, with some birds growing bigger, with more meat, than other birds on the same amount of feed,” Ellestad said. “Now that much of the industry has stopped using these products, production efficiency is suffering.”
A physiologist and endocrinologist, Ellestad is interested in why some birds thrive and others do not have the expected growth under the same conditions.
“All commercial broilers are highly genetically selected for the best traits and producers grow them in very similar situations and environments, yet you end up with extremes. Some birds are very efficient in their growth and some are not,” Ellestad said. “My interest is in what is causing that. What are the metabolic differences between these highly efficient birds and the ones that don’t grow as efficiently?”
Because hormones naturally present in the birds are major regulators of growth and metabolism, Ellestad will study how both high-performing birds and low- performing birds metabolize their feed at the molecular level by examining levels of these hormones and their receptors to see whether they contribute to bird-to-bird differences.
“The differences in those processes can suggest how efficiently birds use the dietary nutrients they are consuming,” she said.
In addition to metabolic processes, Ellestad will delve into how the gut microbiome of the birds might contribute to growth and metabolic efficiency by sequencing the microbial populations present and seeing how the metabolism of the microorganisms themselves might influence intestinal amino, organic, and fatty acids levels.
Ellestad, who joined CAES in 2017, said she is excited to serve on the steering committee for the new poultry science building, which will incorporate research, teaching, office and student spaces.
“Science has evolved a lot since this (existing) building was constructed. Research is much more collaborative and this new facility will give us the opportunity to have bigger, more open research spaces and allow the faculty to have more collaborative opportunities,” she said. “From a practical point of view, it not only helps having updated facilities and equipment, but the expertise of your colleagues. When you start talking to people about the things they are doing and working on, it can spark ideas you can incorporate into your own research and vice versa.”