Using genetic tools to better understand rumen organisms

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — Researchers are using new genetic tools to better understand the relationship between ruminant’s gut micro-organisms and their hosts.

“Many rumen organisms don’t grow well in culture and it is suggested that less than 20 percent of rumen organisms can be cultured. In the past, this limited our ability to fully study rumen microbiology. Some of the species most studied by culture techniques seem to not be the most abundant in the rumen,” said Elaine Grings, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Management & Production Specialist.

Grings explained that a diverse population of micro-organisms in the gut of ruminants allows them to digest fibrous foods that are mostly unusable by humans.

“We have known that the population of organisms in the rumen is large with more than a trillion organisms per ounce of rumen contents. For many years, researchers studied rumen organisms using culturing techniques that required growing bacteria in anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions on substrates that differed depending upon the species being studied,” she said.

Grings referenced a review paper published in January 2014 in the Professional Animal Scientist which provides an update on recent research and tools for understanding the microbiology of the rumen. The complete title of the article authored by Chaucheyras-Durand, F. and F. Ossa, Review: The rumen microbiome: Composition, abundance, diversity, and new investigative tools.

The new genetic tools used to better understand the relationship between these organisms and their hosts are similar to those being used to aid selection in the whole animal.

“New technologies, such as gene sequencing and measures of gene (genomics), protein (proteomics) and metabolite (metabolomics) expression, are now being used to better characterize species in the rumen,” she said.

These tools, Grings said, are now more affordable and available to researchers to help them describe the diversity of organisms in the rumen and to better understand their function.

“Using these tools researchers now believe that the rumen may contain over 7,000 bacterial and 1,500 archaeal (single-celled but distinct from bacteria) species along with numerous protozoa, fungi and bacteriophages. Studying these organisms by use of new approaches may lead to ways to improve efficiency of ruminant animal production and may also provide important information for other uses,” she said.

New enzymes have already been discovered that can aid in breakdown of cellulosic feedstock that might be used for fuel production. A more complete understanding of methane-producing bacteria could lead to decreased methane emissions, Grings said. She added that other unique enzymes involved in lipid metabolism have also been identified from rumen organisms using new techniques.

The recently published review provides an overview of the current state of our understanding and a glimpse of where we may be headed.

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