Nearly everyone has seen the TV ads for probiotic yogurt, where a middle-aged woman eats a scoop of yogurt and it instantly cures her digestive ills.
Scientists question the health benefits of such yogurts and the accuracy of such commercials, but there’s little doubt that the billions of bacteria in the gut are critical for health in humans.
It’s the same for livestock health.
Ehsan Khafipour, a University of Manitoba scientist, thinks it may be possible to manipulate the population of bacteria that live in the guts and mammary glands of dairy cows and pigs.
In two to four years, Khafipour plans to have an injection product, loaded with healthy bacteria, which can be used to prevent infections in livestock and reduce the use of antibiotics.
“Since the discovery of antibiotics, our approach … to pathogenic bacteria has been to always kill them. We are trying to change this view,” said Khafipour, who spoke at the Agriculture Bioscience International Conference held last month in Winnipeg.
Instead of antibiotics, it may be possible to identify members of the bacterial community that are essential for good health. If those micro-organisms are present in livestock, they could suppress the pathogenic bacteria and prevent diseases such as mastitis, an infection of the udder that’s common in dairy cows.
“When we are looking at mammary glands, we are looking at an injection into the mammary system,” Khafipour said following his speech in Winnipeg.
The injection of beneficial bacteria wouldn’t be a replacement for antibiotics but could be used to restore the bacterial population following a treatment of anti-biotics.
“I’m hoping to have products that work in partner with antibiotics … prevention and fixing the community after antibiotic therapy,” said Khafipour, an expert in the microbiome, which is often defined as the microbes in a community and the genes of all those microbes.
The potential for manipulating those billions of microbes and related genes to prevent or cure diseases has received more attention in the last few years.
“A major theme in research today is a growing appreciation of the importance of microbial communities, or microbiomes, and the imperative to better understand these communities,” said University of British Columbia professor Bill Mohn, co-founder of Microbiome Insights, which is located on the UBC campus.
“These highly complex communities are critical for human health, environmental quality and industrial processes.”
Khafipour, who runs a lab named after him at the U of M, is interested in using the microbiome to ad-vance human and animal health.
He’s leading two projects focused on livestock. In one, his team is collecting samples from Manitoba farms to assess the bacterial species that exist inside dairy cows — specifically, the bacteria that live within the udder and milk of dairy cows.
The idea is to identify what Khafipour calls foundation and keystone species of microbes, or the beneficial bacteria that are essential for a healthy udder that may ward off infectious diseases like mastitis.
“We have analyzed about 7,000 samples and looked at multiple dairy farms in Manitoba, (but) the goal is to go to the national level,” he said, to ensure that the bacterial species are representative from breeds and herds in the entire country.
Pinpointing the critical species may make it possible to develop a microbiome therapy, or treatment, that will restore balance to the microbial communities in the udder.
The goal is to discover the foundation and keystone species of microbes in the udders of dairy cows by the end of 2018 and then use that knowledge to develop a treatment product, hopefully sooner rather than later.
“We don’t need to wait for the perfect product because it might take 15 or 20 years,” he said.
“But the first generation of the product will definitely work.”
Khafipour and his colleagues are working on a similar project for hogs to identify bacteria that are critical for the pig microbiome.
The microbiome — by the numbers
- The human microbiome is the collection of microbes living inside a person and the genetic codes for all those micro-organisms.
- Most of those microbes, or bacteria, live in the gut.
- Up to 90 percent of all disease can be related in some way to the gut and the health of the microbiome.
- Genes in the human microbiome outnumber genes in the human genome by 100 to one.
- There are 3.3 million non-redundant genes in the human gut microbiome and 22,000 genes in the human gene catalogue.
- More than 10,000 microbe species have been identified in the human body.
Sources: The National Human Genome Research Institute and the University of Manitoba