FOLIUM Science’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor Martin Woodward shares his expertise on the importance of a healthy microbiome for animal health.
There is currently an increasing interest in the microbiology of the gut, why is that?
A little recognized fact is that the gut of any animal, bird or human contains more cells than the number of cells that make up the host animal itself. Furthermore, there are many different types of micro-organisms or bacteria that comprise what is described as the “gut microbiome”.
This array of micro-organisms play very important functions for the body, the most obvious of which is converting food into the nutrients needed for the growth and maintenance of the host animal. Ever since man began rearing animals for hunting, transport, companionship or food, it was recognised that providing the best available nutrition was good for the health and welfare of the animal. In the modern era much emphasis is placed on the diet of animals, whatever their role in our lives; thus resulting in the multi-billion dollar animal nutrition industry.
Surely diets are relatively simple?
There is a wonderful old adage that says ‘you are what you eat’ which has some semblance of truth about it. It is the host genetics that determine features and physical characteristics, but growth rates and health are totally dependent upon the right nutrients in the feed. It is essential to have the major building blocks (protein and amino acids) and energy sources (carbohydrates and fats) for growth and development but just as important are the trace elements and vitamins. Think about iron for the haemoglobin of red blood cells; without the presence of iron, oxygen uptake and its transport around the body is impossible.
The discovery that limes and lemons given to sailors on meagre rations of dried biscuits and grog prevented scurvy was one of the first examples of the impact of good (or bad) nutrition on health. The vitamin C provided, in this case by the citrus fruit is vital. The point is, it is essential to get a balanced diet that covers all bodily needs, and this is the role of the nutritionist.
OK, so the nutritionist has a very important role but what about the gut microbiome?
The number of different types of organism in the gut varies from one animal species to another and comprises anywhere from many hundreds to several thousand different species of bacteria, and this excludes the protists and viruses. The bacteria are the components of the gut that can aid nutrition and they can have many different roles For example, they can
- provide enzymes to breakdown complex molecules to simpler ones that can be used for energy or building
- breakdown unwanted substances such as toxins (detoxification)
- produce short chain fatty acids especially butyrate that are used by the host gut cells as energy sources and thereby maintain the integrity of the gut, separating the gut contents form the body
- produce many of the nutrients through their own metabolism that are essential for the host, the best example being the aromatic amino acids that animals cannot synthesize. This is not an exclusive list by any means but demonstrates the importance of healthy gut microbiome.
Ah yes, you mention a healthy microbiome but what happens when there are diseases especially those that can infect humans as well?
You raise a significant point. So far, we have talked about the bacterial component in terms of the positive effects they confer on the host. The phrase good/friendly/beneficial bacteria is often used to describe them.
However, not all bacteria are beneficial and many have evolved to colonize the gut to cause disease; we describe these as pathogens. Interestingly, a well-established healthy microbiome is very good at suppressing the effects of pathogenic bacteria. This was first identified and described in the late 1960s and early 1970s and called the ‘Nurmi Effect’ after the author of the paper. A healthy gut microbiome can competitively exclude some pathogens very effectively. However, stress or the use of antibiotics can disturb the composition of the gut microbiome and open the way for infection. The pathogens of real concern in animal farming and production are those that not only cause losses in productivity but also those that can enter the food chain and cause diseases in humans. The culprits are Salmonella, pathovars of Escherichia coli and Campylobacter amongst many others.
This sounds complex, how does Folium Science hope to prevent these productivity problems?
Of the complex issues raised here, perhaps the simplest to deal with is the infection of an animal by a pathogen. By definition, this is definitely not wanted in the gut of the host and many mechanisms can be employed to reduce or try to eliminate them. Farmers utilize barrier methods preventing access of potential sources of infection to the animals, rigorous cleansing and disinfection, vaccination and the use of probiotics amongst currently available options. None of these methods are fool-proof because, with the exception of vaccination, these are non-specific untargeted blanket measures. FOLIUM Science’s Guided Biotic technology precisely targets the specific pathogen of interest and only removes that single target leaving the microbiome otherwise unharmed and able to return into balance.
However, sustaining a healthy gut microbiome still remains one of the best barriers to infection and is the driver behind much of FOLIUM Science’s work, relating back to the principles of good nutrition and establishing a balanced microbiome. Our vision at FOLIUM Science is to develop systems that support the re-balancing of the microbiome after dysbiosis (unbalanced gut microbiome caused by disease). Here FOLIUM Science aims to develop novel metabolic interventions that, rather than knocking out a pathogen actually enhance the development of the beneficial bacteria.
There seems to be a lot of potential here and no use of antibiotics?
Yes the potential is huge and very exciting for FOLIUM Science. And yes, you have identified that our Guided Biotic technology can be used in animal production and farming to replace antibiotics. Not only that, the technology is already being developed to remove the genes that are responsible for encoding antibiotic resistance.