Seaweed for cows? Re­searcher says oceans may pro­vide live­stock feed

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - Alberta - THE CANA­DIAN PRESS— South­ern Al­berta News­pa­pers

It is a long way be­tween prairie ranch­land where cat­tle graze and ocean wa­ters where seaweed blooms, but Cana­dian sci­en­tists want to study whether red algae can one day be used as a sus­tain­able live­stock feed.

A pa­per pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions ear­lier this year deter­mined how ex­actly the hu­man gut breaks down di­etary fi­bres in a tasty dulse-like va­ri­ety of seaweed.

Sci­en­tists worked with the Cana­dian Light Source at the Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchew­an — a re­search cen­tre that uses a light a mil­lion times brighter than the sun — to ex­am­ine four en­zymes that di­gest the seaweed sug­ars.

Wade Ab­bott, a re­search sci­en­tist with Agri­cul­ture and Agri-Food Canada’s Leth­bridge Re­search and Devel­op­ment Cen­tre, said fu­ture study will aim to con­firm whether the in­testines of cows and other an­i­mals can con­vert algae into en­ergy, too.

The re­search Ab­bott co-led with the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria’s Alis­dair Bo­ras­ton honed in on a type of bac­te­ria called B. uni­formis NP1.

“It’s a spe­cial­ized mem­ber of our gut com­mu­nity and it has all the en­zymes that are re­quired to break up all the dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal bonds that you find in the sugar,” Ab­bott said June 14.

“So it’s able to un­lock en­ergy from seaweed cell wall ma­te­rial.”

It’s not known for sure whether the di­ges­tive tracts of other an­i­mals have those same help­ful mi­crobes, but Ab­bott said he sus­pects they do.

He noted there is a herd of sheep that live on a beach on an is­land in north­ern Scot­land that munches solely on seaweed.

The foods an­i­mals eat tend to de­ter­mine which gut bac­te­ria flour­ish, and changes can hap­pen rapidly when some­thing new is added to their diet.

“That’s what re­mark­able about com­mu­ni­ties that col­o­nize an­i­mal in­testines,” said Ab­bott. “They’re so adap­tive, they’re so di­verse.”

Seaweed would be a good al­ter­na­tive to grains in live­stock feed that could help solve a lot of prob­lems in agri­cul­ture, Ab­bott said.

A ma­jor chal­lenge is bal­anc­ing a boom­ing pop­u­la­tion and ap­petite for meat with shrink­ing arable land and fresh wa­ter.

“Seaweed in that sense is ac­tu­ally re­mark­able be­cause it grows in the ocean, so you’re not com­pet­ing with land re­quired for hu­man food,” said Ab­bott.

“It doesn’t re­quire fresh wa­ter. It doesn’t re­quire arable land. It’s loaded with mi­cronu­tri­ents. It has a rapid growth rate. The ben­e­fits of aqua­cul­ture go on and on.”

If it turns out live­stock can in­deed di­gest seaweed, the cost of pro­cess­ing it at a large scale and trans­port­ing it in­land re­mains a chal­lenge.

And it’s not clear how to make it ap­pe­tiz­ing to farm crit­ters, said Ab­bott.

“They will eat it, but you have to re­search what the right mix­ture is and how to op­ti­mize in­take.”

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