Last updated March 1, 2018 at 5:09 pm
Industry and agriculture are lined up to benefit from new research into cattle’s digestive systems.
More than 900 strains of microbe have been identified living inside the stomachs of cows, providing new insight into how the animals convert plant tissue into muscle and milk.
The findings of a new study will assist researchers in discovering ways to improve the digestive efficiency and health of cattle.
They may also provide clues for new methods of biofuel production.
Among the likely subjects of immediate interest to researchers in agriculture and biofuels are 15 genomes that potentially encode powerful machinery for breaking down cellulose – and several others that might condition cow rumens – the animal’s crucial first stomach – to adapt to a wide variety of new diets.
“The rumen is of huge industrial interest due to its ability to release energy and nutrition from plant material,” the researchers conclude.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that cattle have been domesticated for around 10,500 years, little is known of the digestive mechanisms deployed by the species.
Clearly, however, as in humans, the microbes that live within the digestive tract – the microbiome – play a central role.
In a bid to discover just which micro-organisms make up the population inside the rumen, scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) extracted gut content from 43 Aberdeen Angus, Limousin, Charolais and Luing cattle and subjected it to rigorous analysis.
The researchers, led by the Roslin Institute’s Mick Watson, used a technique called metagenomics. This is an approach that involves extracting and cloning DNA directly from environmental samples.
It overcomes the main problem encountered in most microbiological investigations, which is that the vast majority of bacteria, archaea and fungi cannot be cultured in lab conditions and therefore go unrecorded.
For this reason, it is perhaps not all that surprising that the 43 rumens produced 913 bacterial and archaean genomes, containing more than 69,000 proteins suspected of being involved with carbohydrate metabolism, many of them never before seen.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, Watson and his colleagues say that more than 90% of proteins discovered were previously unknown.
The number of microbial genomes discovered represents a fivefold increase on the previous largest dataset.
The information gathered represents a rich haul of targets for future investigations.