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The climate crisis continues to impact ecosystems around the world, and it is essential that humankind continues to find ways to minimize its impact on the environment. One of the areas of concern in the fight against the climate crisis is greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide and methane. These gases trap heat, and result in global temperatures rising. One industry looking to minimize its impact on greenhouse emissions is the cattle industry, specifically, the emissions from their cows!
There are an estimated 1.5 billion cows on the planet, with these docile creatures inadvertently contributing to greenhouse gas emissions through the production and subsequent release of methane in their flatulence and belching! Although humorous at first glance, when we consider that each cow produces 70-120kg of methane each year, and that methane is almost 25 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, we can begin to appreciate how troublesome these farts and burps really are!
But what does this have to do with genomics? Well, researchers think they may have found an answer to these troublesome ‘emissions’. An international team of scientists have discovered that it appears that the amount of methane produced by cows is linked to the bacteria that live in their first stomach (called the rumen). This blend of microorganisms in their gut is called the ‘microbiome’, and it assists the cow digest its food. Some bacteria produce more methane than others. The specific combination of bacteria is controlled (at least in part) by the genetic makeup of the cows. So, some cows have genes that result in their gut bacteria producing more methane, while other cows have genes that result in their gut bacteria producing less methane. If farmers are able to identify which male and female cattle produce less methane and breed them selectively, they could produce herds that produce significantly less methane. Some estimates suggest a reduction of 50% is possible through this practice alone.
Although cattle farmers have previously been able to temporarily reduce the amount of methane released by cows through modifying their diet, selectively breeding cattle identified to produce lower levels of methane would result in permanent reductions. The selective breeding of low methane cattle would make significant, wider-ranging impacts on the cattle industries’ contribution to greenhouse gases.
No word yet, though, on whether this will reduce the stench of cow flatulence!
To read more about this research click here.