October 2017 - The gut is home to millions of different bacteria and fungi. Some
of these microbes produce enzymes that help break down and absorb food. For example,
in humans, the lactase enzyme helps with the digestion of lactose in milk. For those
whose digestive systems lack the enzyme, it can be consumed as a supplement or be
added to milk products to create a "lactose free" version.
In agriculture, while there are dozens of supplements on the market that work with
the digestive process of some kinds of animals, there is a lack of feed enzymes
that can improve ruminants' (cattle, sheep, elk, and others) digestion of forage
plants. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) microbiologists Dr. Robert Gruninger
and Dr. Wen Chen are trying to remedy this by studying the microbes and enzymes
in the gut of beavers and pandas - animals that survive on twigs and bamboo, similar
to low-quality forage. By understanding how the gut of these animals processes feed,
researchers hope to revolutionize the way livestock digest food and change what
farmers feed them.
"The beaver eats a low-quality forage diet, so we are studying which enzymes in
its gut help break down those plant materials to get the nutrition it needs to grow,"
explains Dr. Rob Gruninger.
Dr. Wen Chen and her colleague Prof. Lei Cai at the Institute of Microbiology, Chinese
Academy of Sciences
discovered that panda guts may also have something to offer the agriculture sector
- a large number of anaerobic fungi (fungi that can live without oxygen). These
fungi are known to be responsible for the digestion of fibre in herbivores that
could not only help livestock and other animals improve digestion, but could also
be used for breaking down plant material in industrial biofuel production.
"What we're seeing in the lab is really exciting. Imagine the possibilities that
exist in reducing our reliance on petrochemicals by improving the way we make biofuel
or in helping animals better process their food by utilizing these microorganisms
or the natural enzymes they produce," explains Dr. Chen.
Both Dr. Gruninger and Dr. Chen's research remain in the beginning stages, but already
they have begun to make remarkable discoveries that could benefit commercial livestock
and large-scale biofuel practices in the future.
- By studying the gut microbiomes of different animals, researchers hope to identify
microbes or the enzymes they produce so that they can be added to livestock feed
to increase feeding efficiency.
- At AAFC Lethbridge, researchers have identified bacteria in the guts of beavers
that produce enzymes that help the animal digest food.
- Dr. Wen Chen of AAFC's Ottawa lab is part of an international team that has profiled
the gut microbiota of the Giant Panda and has identified a novel lineage of anaerobic
fungi that may play a key role in the digestion of bamboo and other plant material.