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The beaver and panda gut may hold the key to more efficient digestion in livestock

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The gut is home to millions of different bacteria and fungi. Some of these microbes produce enzymes that help break down and absorb food. For example, in humans, the lactase enzyme helps with the digestion of lactose in milk. For those whose digestive systems lack the enzyme, it can be consumed as a supplement or be added to milk products to create a "lactose free" version.

In agriculture, while there are dozens of supplements on the market that work with the digestive process of some kinds of animals, there is a lack of feed enzymes that can improve ruminants' (cattle, sheep, elk, and others) digestion of forage plants. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) microbiologists Dr. Robert Gruninger and Dr. Wen Chen are trying to remedy this by studying the microbes and enzymes in the gut of beavers and pandas - animals that survive on twigs and bamboo, similar to low-quality forage. By understanding how the gut of these animals processes feed, researchers hope to revolutionize the way livestock digest food and change what farmers feed them.

"The beaver eats a low-quality forage diet, so we are studying which enzymes in its gut help break down those plant materials to get the nutrition it needs to grow," explains Dr. Rob Gruninger.

Dr. Wen Chen and her colleague Prof. Lei Cai at the Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered that panda guts may also have something to offer the agriculture sector - a large number of anaerobic fungi (fungi that can live without oxygen). These fungi are known to be responsible for the digestion of fibre in herbivores that could not only help livestock and other animals improve digestion, but could also be used for breaking down plant material in industrial biofuel production.

"What we're seeing in the lab is really exciting. Imagine the possibilities that exist in reducing our reliance on petrochemicals by improving the way we make biofuel or in helping animals better process their food by utilizing these microorganisms or the natural enzymes they produce," explains Dr. Chen.

Both Dr. Gruninger and Dr. Chen's research remain in the beginning stages, but already they have begun to make remarkable discoveries that could benefit commercial livestock and large-scale biofuel practices in the future.

Key facts

Photo gallery

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Dr. Rob Gruninger feeds a heifer some silage at the Lethbridge research facility.
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The North American Beaver is recognized as one of Canada's national symbols.
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Dr Wen Chen analyzes data collected from the Giant Panda's feces.

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