Meat and milk production from cattle could one day be boosted, thanks to analysis of microbes in cows’ stomachs.
The study paves the way for research to understand which types of microbe – such as bacteria – are best at helping cattle to extract energy from their food, experts say.
It also identifies enzymes that are specialised 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 – the first of its four stomachs.
The rumen is home to diverse strains of microorganisms which help the animal to extract energy and nutrients from its food.
The team used an advanced technique called metagenomics, which involves analysing the genetic composition of the microbes that exist within an organism, in this case a 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 biofuels and biotechnology industries.
By analysing 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, experts say.