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Greener cattle: Seeking ways to inhibit methane production in cows

As our planet faces escalating challenges from global warming, a group of international scientists will be recruiting a surprising ally in the fight against greenhouse emissions: the cow. 

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, experts in animal sciences are launching a novel venture aimed at cutting methane emissions due to rumen fermentation in beef and dairy cattle. 

Greener cattle

Spanning three years and backed by a $3.2-million budget, this undertaking falls under the umbrella of the Greener Cattle Initiative, which is backed by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).

Research data indicates that taking on methane might be a faster route to addressing climate issues than solely focusing on carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane’s heat-trapping ability is 28 times stronger than CO2’s, but it exits the atmosphere in roughly a dozen years, while CO2 can linger for centuries.

“What this means is that anything we do now with ruminant animals can have a huge impact on warming within decades, rather than centuries. Our challenge is to reduce enteric methane emissions by about 30 to 40 percent with the technologies we have,” said project leader Rod Mackie, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I. 

Focus of the study

Connecting six research centers globally, this project zeroes in on enteric methane – a byproduct of microbial fermentation in the rumen. As a part of this strategy, Mackie and his colleagues aim to examine hydrogen’s role during fermentation.

During the fermentation process, the recycling of an energy-rich molecule, NADH, stands out. For the uninterrupted generation of energy, NADH must release its hydrogen and anticipate a replacement from the decomposition of carbohydrates. Generally, NADH’s surplus hydrogen aids in turning CO2 into methane. Yet, the scientists speculate that there are alternatives to use this type of hydrogen.

“In anaerobic fermentation in the rumen, you have to have some way of recycling hydrogen through the conversion of NADH to NAD. In that process, most of the excess hydrogen goes towards methane. If you shut down methane production, hydrogen builds up and inhibits glycolysis,” Mackie explained. 

“We don’t want that to happen. Instead, we want to redirect hydrogen into other products, such as propionate and butyrate, reduced fatty acids that serve as the primary energy source for all ruminants.”

Methane reduction

“There are a lot of groups working on inhibiting methane directly using dietary additives. Our focus is trying to figure out how we actually make it work in an animal and make it more energetically feasible. That’s really been the missing piece,” added Josh McCann, an assistant professor of Animal Sciences at the same university, who will also be involved in the project. 

“If cows can’t metabolize the excess hydrogens for productive benefit and to improve growth, there will continue to be limited adoption of methane reduction strategies or additives. There’s no economic incentive.”

Microbial communities 

The team’s strategy begins in the lab through a thorough investigation of hydrogen production and its utilization. By examining rumen microbial communities from diverse cattle, the researchers aim to uncover potential tweaks using inhibitor compounds. Their findings will eventually be tested on cattle.

“Most of the grant is focused on the basic and the mechanistic side, but once we make something that might work within a microbial community, it still has to work in an animal,” McCann explained. 

Methane inhibitor 

“We have complicating factors like diet components and how much they want to eat. Not to mention dairy cattle and beef cattle are eating different things, so the bugs in the rumen function differently. So, if we apply a methane inhibitor to a dairy microbial community, we might have to approach the hydrogen capture a little bit differently than in a beef rumen community.”

Mackie envisions this initiative as the starting point of a long-term quest to tackle enteric methane. By the conclusion of the three-year project, the experts aim to pinpoint precise inhibitor dosages that either maintain or even bolster production capacities.

“What we’d like is to have ruminants save the planet within 10 years. That would be amazing,” Mackie concluded.

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