Last month, a talk was given by Aberystwyth’s senior lecturer in Animal Science Dr Sharon Huws on the importance of vertebrate digestive systems and the multitude of microorganisms that reside within the ruminant gut in particular.
Understanding the microbiome.
She began by providing a brief background to the rumen microbiota, a complicated ecosystem housing archaea, protozoa, fungi, and of course bacteria. Following this she informed us of the importance of studying this microhabitat. Small changes to the microbiome in cattle can lead to changes in animal production, product (milk or meat) quality, and can also have an environmental impact.
Most of Dr Huws’ talk was focused on the digestive abilities of these microorganisms; specifically the ability of the certain genera of bacteria that perform a chemical reaction known as biohydrogenation. This reaction breaks down the double bonds within polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which make up most of the plant material eaten. The PUFAs are toxic to the microbiome, so they are changed to saturated fats. Through the use of horizontal gene transfer (the movement of genes between individuals as opposed to passing genes between generations), it is quite likely that there is a variety of species responsible for biohydrogenation and on top of this, a multitude of enzymes actively changing the fatty acids.
Exploiting the microbiome.
One of the major scientific goals for the near future is the abolition of fossil fuels, and moreover the development of new and cleaner fuel sources. Biofuels, as they are commonly known, are the same as classic fuels, however made from renewable, biological sources. A key source of these biofuels is macroalgae, or seaweed. This use of macroalgae is not without its hurdles. The most prominent issue is due to a major polysaccharide, ulvan, which is very difficult to breakdown. A potential solution to this was found in a breed of sheep known, affectionately, as Seaweed Sheep. These Scottish sheep feed on algae and therefore must posses a unique microbiome capable of breaking down the ulvan. After much cultivation from faecal samples, it was found that there is around 82 ulvan lyase isolates that could be used for the future production of macroalgae biofuel.
Much like the previous post about the importance of bacteriophanges, I find this topic remarkably interesting. This is due to its similarity to my dissertation project, which looks at the effect that changes in the mouse gut microbiome have on behaviour. Although they are both similar topics with shared focus on the microbiology of the digestive system, they both have the potential to go on to either agricultural and fuel developments, or medicine and treatment of neurological conditions.
This talk, along with my project has given me a keen interest in microbiology and in particular the importance of digestive bacteria. Through my own work and hearing about others, I have gained more insight and have started on a path which may lead me to work in the microbial industry for research or development.