Grocery stores across the United States have at least one thing in common: milk. However, other countries are not so lucky, says Bryan White, University of Illinois professor of animal sciences and researcher at the Institute for Genomic Biology.
"If you walk into any U.S. grocery store on any given day, you will find milk," White notes. "But the rest of the world doesn't have that luxury. Sometimes they don't get any milk."
This reality was the foundation for a grant from the United States–Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development (BARD) fund. BARD grants are awarded to American and Israeli scientists for jointly conducted and mutually beneficial research of agricultural problems.
The dairy industry is one of the biggest animal agricultural sectors in Israel. Milk is a large part of the Jewish diet and they want to meet that need, provide for themselves and be more independent. However, the country is small, and they are concerned about efficiency and the environment.
Itzhak Mizrahi, a researcher for the Agricultural Research Organization, approached White with the idea to find ways to increase feed efficiency in dairy cattle and to decrease methane gas emissions.
"If you increase feed efficiency, then you need fewer cows to make the same amount of milk. If you need fewer cows, then you release less gas. It's simple math," White says.
White and Mizrahi will receive $320,000 over a three-year period to fund this research.
"This grant helps create and maintain an important, international relationship," White adds. "I believe it's important to foster this relationship in order to help Israel maintain its independence"
In addition, White has already received two similar grants through the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF).
White received his first BSF grant two years ago to study cellulosome metagenomics in the rumen microbiome with Raphael Lamed, a professor of molecular microbiology and biotechnology at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
"Bacteria that live in the rumen, or stomach of the cow, have an organizational system called cellulosomes to break down plant cell walls," White said. "We think cellulosomes ream out the insides of plant cell walls like a bottle brush."
White and Lamed are studying the diversity, organization and adaptability of the Ruminococcus flavefaciens bacterial strains of the rumen and their cellulosomes. They are also evaluating their functional diversity.
"Our hypothesis is that the cow rumen has the most diverse set of plant-cell-wall-breaking enzymes in nature," White said. "Cattle have been evolving for a long time. During that period, they have probably eaten every type of plant cell wall on the planet."
The researchers believe cattle developed a system that is adaptable to different cell wall types, using the numerous bacterial species found in the rumen of cattle.
"For example, we think each bacterium might have a different arsenal of enzymes that break down plant cell wall. So you might have a bacteria that uses machine guns to break down one cell wall type, another that uses grenade launchers for a different type of wall, and some that use cannons for yet another wall," he said.
Learning how to increase feed efficiency is vital worldwide for those who cannot afford to feed grains to their livestock and where high-quality growth substrates are not abundant.