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Cows' stomachs a biotechnological treasure chest

Media Release
10 November 2005

Cows’ stomachs a biotechnological treasure chest

The stomachs of New Zealand dairy cattle are being looked at as a way in to the $2 billion market for industrial enzymes, thanks to work done by Fonterra subsidiary ViaLactia Biosciences and its research partners.

Enzymes are proteins which regulate the rate of chemical reactions such as digestion. They can be used in industries ranging from pharmaceutical manufacturing to paper production, as well as more obvious examples such as effluent treatment.

Scientists from ViaLactia, the Gesellschaft für Biotechnologische Forschung (GBF) in Germany, and the Instituto de Catalisis Y Petroleoquimica (CSIC) in Spain have together developed technology which allows them to isolate the genetic information of all microbes present in a single organism, and thereby identify new natural enzymes.

This “metagenomic” technology provides a powerful new way to survey microbes in their natural environment, without having to grow each microorganism under laboratory conditions. Applying this technology to the rumen, or first stomach, of dairy cows has produced some amazing results, the researchers say.

“We have harvested genetic resources and microbial diversity that represent an unexplored and vast treasure chest of new knowledge with biotechnological applications”, says Professor Kenneth Timmis, head of the Division of Microbiology at GBF.

ViaLactia’s Chief Forage Scientist, Kieran Elborough, says the research, which this month features on the cover of scientific journal Environmental Microbiology, has considerable potential to boost productivity in New Zealand’s pastoral industry.

"If forage digestibility can be improved using these enzymes, either in the rumen itself or in pretreatment of feed, then the pressure on pastoral systems would be reduced. We could expect further benefits for environmental sustainability, due to reduced need for irrigation and fertilisers. These enzymes are best-of-breed for this job because they are already highly adapted to the rumen environment,” says Dr Elborough.

While the researchers are pleased by their early commercial and scientific successes, CSIC’s Manuel Ferrer says there is plenty more to come.

“We have found enzymes with surprising and unique properties for every enzymatic activity that we have looked for to date. It is clear that the rumen is a wellspring of unusual and valuable enzymes, none of which have been studied before,” Dr Ferrer says.

“We have new enzymes with novel structural and catalytic features, useful in both biotechnology and basic research, which would have been impossible to discover without metagenomics. The rumen offers a promising starting-point for new products and processes that were until recently hidden from us, for example the synthesis of novel nutritional lipids with therapeutic properties.”

Discoveries coming out of this research will be commercialised by Ascenion GmbH. Ascenion CEO Christian Stein says there is a strong demand for novel biocatalysts.

“We expect to close a series of licence agreements yielding substantial revenues for GBF and ViaLactia,” says Dr Stein.

Dr Elborough says the results have come quicker than anyone expected.

“Rumen metagenomics is no longer a future possibility, it is a functioning technology. We’re exploring a new frontier, and identifying new value in New Zealand’s dairy herd.”


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