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US to sequence DNA of microbes from ruminants

29 June 2009

Embargoed until 4am Tuesday 30 June 2009

Important environmental benefits possible for NZ now US to sequence DNA of microbes from ruminant animals

Biofuel production from agricultural wastes and more food from ruminant animals with lower environmental impacts are more likely now AgResearch has successfully applied to a prestigious US institution to have the DNA of microbes within the forestomach (rumen) of these animals sequenced.

AgResearch scientists Christina Moon, Graeme Attwood and their team applied to the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) to have the collective rumen microbial genome of these animals sequenced. Their successful application is a major triumph for AgResearch. With no funding allocated to AgResearch for this work, the decision means it will now be conducted by the JGI free of charge.

The rumen is the first part of the stomach of ruminant animals where food collects after being swallowed. It is home to a diverse group of microbes which break down the feed material.

“The sequencing is part of a larger project investigating the microbes that digest the plant material in the rumen. It’s about identifying the organisms involved in this process and looking at the enzymes they use to break down plant material.” says Dr Moon.

By identifying organisms and enzymes involved in the process, there is potential to speed up the digestive process, improving the production of meat, milk and other ruminant products.

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This is just one of the benefits that will emerge from the investigation. “A major problem with sheep and cows in New Zealand is the imbalance between how quickly protein breaks down and how quickly fibre breaks down in the rumen,” says Dr Moon.

“The downstream effect of this is the loss of nitrogen in the urine of the animals. In the soil, this converts to nitrous oxide, one of the most potent greenhouse gases,” she says.

“By addressing this imbalance, we aim to reduce these emissions. Improving the rate and extent of digestion of plant material in the rumen can also reduce the methane released from the animals,” Dr Moon says.

The main reason for the success of the application is the potential for the technology to be applied to biofuels.

“The JGI are interested in the microbes and enzymes we find in the rumen because they have the potential to significantly improve biofuel production,” Dr Moon concludes.

The sequencing is set to begin after September 2009.


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