The way to a healthy chicken is through its intestines, where more than 100 billion bacteria live. Until recently, the tiny organisms were thought of merely as digestive helpers and vitamin producers, but today they are considered key to well-being.
Evonik, a specialty chemicals company based in Germany, intends to use these microbes to develop alternatives to antibiotics in animal nutrition by turning them into assistants for animal health.
“We are currently expanding our product portfolio for healthy and sustainable approaches to animal nutrition,” said Dr. Emmanuel Auer, head of the Animal Nutrition Business Line at Evonik, one of the world's leading providers of essential amino acids for animal nutrition.
“The development of alternatives to antibiotics and antibiotic growth promoters is a promising approach we are pursuing. Natural feed additives such as probiotics play a key role in this regard,” Auer explained.
Probiotics are natural organisms that come to exist in the intestines. Among other functions, they protect the animals’ immune system against pathogens, Evonik explained, adding that it sees major business potential with these feed additives. In July, Evonik's specialty chemicals group expanded its product portfolio by acquiring the probiotics business of NOREL. At the same time, Evonik is significantly stepping up its own research in this field.
The aim is to create probiotics with a customized and proven effect. Moreover, Evonik intends to use intestinal bacteria to determine the health status of animals and to give breeders recommendations for appropriate feed compositions that include probiotics to promote intestinal health.
“Farm animals should make the best possible use of their feed and remain healthy without antibiotics,” said Stefan Pelzer, head of the Gut Health & Diagnostics innovation area in the Evonik Animal Nutrition Business Line. “This creates a competitive edge for livestock producers and, at the same time, reduces antibiotics in the environment.”
Gut simulation model
In order to understand how probiotics and other natural food additives affect intestinal bacteria and, thus, an animal’s overall health, Evonik scientists are working on a novel gut simulation model designed to biochemically mimic the digestion of chickens throughout the gastrointestinal tract and simulate the effect of feed additives.
The project is part of the "Good Bacteria & Bioactives in Industry” (GOBI) innovation alliance, which is funded by Germany's Federal Ministry of Education & Research.
“We are advancing into a completely new world,” Pelzer said. “The chicken gut simulation model, for the first time, lets us understand the highly complex interaction of feed and intestinal bacteria in the laboratory and enables us to analyze the interplay of microbes with the immune system.”
Since no adequate analytical model has been available, feed additives have been developed empirically for the most part, Evonik said. This means they are fed to live animals in feed studies, followed by researchers observing the effect.
“With the new gut simulation model, we can study in the laboratory whether and, if so, which supplements work. We want to find out exactly how they affect an animal’s health and which dose is necessary," Pelzer explained.
Even though the model is a biochemical simulation of the internal processes occurring inside a chicken, it visually has little to do with the animals. The apparatus consists of a sequence of glass vessels that are connected by hoses. Each container includes a milieu representing a specific segment of the digestive tract.
Evonik’s own bioinformatics specialists are making a substantial contribution to the research project. They will study the genes of the intestinal organisms and gather information about the abilities of certain bacteria — for example, generating vitamins or processing healthy ingredients from the feed.
“Over the coming years, we will study the composition of the intestinal population and analyze millions of genes whose functions are still partly unexplored,” Dr. Jessica Schneider, head of the Bioinformatics team, said.