Meat and milk production from cattle could one day get a boost following a new analysis of rumen microbes that paves the way for research to understand which microbial types are best at helping ruminants extract energy from their food, according to researchers in the U.K. who conducted the study.
The research also identifies enzymes that are specialized for breaking down plant material, which could help in the quest to develop new biofuels.
Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) focused on microbes found in a cow's rumen, which is home to diverse strains of microorganisms, such as bacteria, archaea and fungi, that help the animal extract energy and nutrients from its food.
The team used an advanced technique called metagenomics, which involves analyzing the genetic composition all of the microbes that exist within an organism -- in this case, the cow.
They studied samples of rumen gut contents from 43 cows and identified 913 diverse strains of microbes living in the rumen. Most of the microbes uncovered have never been seen before and may have potential uses in the biofuel and biotechnology industries.
By analyzing their genetic information, the team pinpointed previously unknown enzymes that can extract energy and nutrition from plant material.
Beef and dairy cattle and other milk-producing ruminants provide food and nutrition to billions of people worldwide. Understanding how these animals convert plant-based diets into energy will be vital for securing the future of the world's food supplies, the researchers said.
Professor Mick Watson of the Roslin Institute, said, "This has been a truly fascinating study, and really we are only beginning to understand what these microbes do. The fact most of them were very different to microbes that have already been discovered surprised us, so we just can't wait to study them further. If we can improve the efficiency of digestion in cows and other ruminants, we may be able to produce more food for people while using fewer resources. This is a key aim of improving global food security."
SRUC professor Rainer Roehe added, "The newly identified microbial species in the rumen of beef cattle will greatly improve our understanding of how the rumen microbial ecosystem works. Using breeding and nutritional interventions, we will be able to use this information to help improve cattle health and performance throughout the world."
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, was carried out in collaboration with experts at The Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen.
The Roslin Institute receives strategic funding from the U.K.'s Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council.