Future of world’s food supply could be found within cow’s stomach

28 Feb 2018

Image: Gareth Hill/Shutterstock

Research into the contents of a cow’s stomach could not only help us boost the world’s food supply, but create biofuels, too.

Many are familiar with the fact that cows have four stomachs, but the first of those stomachs – the rumen – could harbour a number of important breakthroughs for agriculture and energy.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, a team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh undertook a study of the microbes found in the rumen, home to diverse strains of microorganisms such as bacteria, archaea and fungi, which help the animal extract energy and nutrients from its food.

By analysing them using a technique known as metagenomics – whereby the microbes’ genetic composition is examined – the team revealed that it could one day find a way to boost meat and milk production.

The study involved 43 cows and identified 913 diverse strains of microbes living in the rumen.

The majority of the microbes found have never been seen before by science, including a number of enzymes that can extract energy and nutrition from plant material.

By understanding how these animals convert plant-based diets into energy, it could prove vital for securing the future of the world’s food supplies, according to the team.

A truly fascinating study

On top of that, such mechanisms could help find answers to our development of new, clean biofuels.

Speaking of the findings, Prof Mick Watson of the team said: “This has been a truly fascinating study, and really we are only beginning to understand what these microbes do.

“The fact most of them were very different to microbes that have already been discovered surprised us, so we just can’t wait to study them further.”

He continued: “If we can improve the efficiency of digestion in cows and other ruminants, we may be able to produce more food for people whilst using fewer resources. This is a key aim of improving global food security.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic