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“Beefed up” methods to study prebiotics

This guest post is written by Wade Abbott, PhD, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge focused on agricultural glycomics, functional genomics, carbohydrate modification and the gut microbiome in livestock.

The cattle industry is the largest source of farm cash receipts in Canada and contributes $18 billion to Canada’s economyAs the world’s third largest producer and exporter of high-quality beef and cattle, Canada’s beef industry is an essential component of global food security and the Canadian economy. To facilitate its ongoing efforts towards sustainable intensification and to shrink the environmental footprint of beef production, the industry has historically relied on technologies ranging from improved animal health management, feed processing and diet formulation, feed additives, and growth implants. Improved understanding of the respiratory microbiome, gut microbiome, and gut-lung axis will support researchers in their search for additional strategies to further enhance animal health and productivity and contribute to continued improvements in the sustainability of Canadian beef production.   

Preventable diseases and inefficient feed conversion present significant costs to the bottom line of Canada’s beef industryIn healthy cattle, beneficial microbes and host immunity keep pathogens in check and assist with digestion. The genetic make-up of both beneficial and pathogenic microbes is called a microbiomeThe gut and lung microbiomes are key players in the fight against pathogens and support the cattle immune system. New research also suggests the gut and lung microbiomes do not operate independently and can even influence each other through the gut-lung axis. That means that rumen acidosis may impact lung health, or BRD could impact gut health. If that’s the case, a more holistic approach to preventing or treating animal disease may be beneficial. Researchers are working to develop therapeutic tools that can strengthen the integrity of microbiomes.  

A prebiotic is compound that promotes the growth of specific beneficial microbesresulting in a health benefit to the host. This makes prebiotics promising tool to increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria, enhance microbiome function and promote overall animal healthMany studies have shown the benefits of dietary prebiotics in humans and mice, and monogastric livestock, such as chickens and pigs. Prebiotics with consistent positive outcomes to improve the health and feed efficiency of cattle have been slower in coming 

Cattle have a complex digestive systemIn particular, the rumen houses a tremendously complex and diverse microbiome, and we still have much to learn about its functionHealthy gut and respiratory microbiomes improve the animal’s nutritional status and strengthen its resistance to pathogens. By identifying key microbial and prebiotic actors in this microbial world and understanding how they function together, scientists hope to provide new solutions to improve cattle health and productivity.   

In ongoing research work funded through the Sustainable Beef and Forage Science Cluster, the Abbott group and their collaborators at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre aim to develop cutting-edge research tools to better understand the direct effects of prebiotics on important rumen bacteria. With the help of international collaborators located at the Max-Planck Institute in Bremen, Germanythey have engineered novel fluorescent polysaccharides (FLA-PS) that behave similarly to natural prebiotics and enable researchers to visualize, identify, and study rumen bacteria that consume prebiotics. FLA-PS allow the researchers to study how prebiotics interact with individual bacterial cells, are metabolized by rumen bacteria, and tune the rumen microbiome to optimize digestion 

Using a library of chemically unique FLA-PS to mimic different prebiotics, they have been able to identify new bacterial strains and even collect bacterial cells from their microbial communities to study bacteria that are the most metabolically activeThis research has been published and described in a brief video. 

Using these advanced research tools in combination with traditional rumen nutritional studies, they are starting to solve the mysteries of how prebiotics work and determine which prebiotics are the most effective for improving cattle health and performance. Looking forward, research leading to ‘evidence-based’ prebiotics holds great promise for improving digestive efficiency and overall animal healthbuilding public trust, and furthering the environmental sustainability of beef production 

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