The ‘Ruminomics’ project, led by professor John Wallace of the Institute of Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, gathers scientists from 11 countries, including Italy, Scandinavia and France, and aims to identify the gene responsible for methane emissions in farm animals.
“It has been thought for a while that individual animals produce high or low numbers of the micro-organisms responsible for methane. With genetics, we hope to identify the organisms responsible for that and find out if they are inherited. If they are, it means we could breed animals with lower methane emissions,” Wallace told GlobalMeatNews.
If they succeed in isolating the gene or combination of genes that causes high methane emissions, ‘greener’ animals could start being bred immediately, providing a long-term solution to farm-generated greenhouse gases.
John Williams of the Parco Tecnologico Padano in Italy, said: “In principle, we could start breeding immediately, but it’s important to understand the exact function of the gene first, in order to use genomic technology in an intelligent and controlled way. We don’t want to breed an animal that releases less methane but presents another environmental issue or has reduced milk yield. We want to improve the environment, but also welfare and productivity as a package.”
The programme includes the study of 1,000 dairy cows to relate feed intake, digestion efficiency, milk production and methane emissions to the ruminants’ microbial community and genome, and observation of bovine twins to define how the rumen microbiome varies in host animals that are genetically identical.
“Each country brings its own skills,” added Wallace. “England will be in charge of measuring methane, Italy will study the DNA sequency, France will characterise the microbial community, while nutritionists in Finland and Sweden will analyse animals’ diets.”