Indian American researcher uses cow’s gut to reduce emissions

Pitta’s team adds an enzyme powder to cow feed, which cuts methane emissions by 30 percent. (Courtesy: Penn State University)

Dipti Pitta, an Indian American assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Penn State University, has received a $500,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture for her research project on rumen, the large part of the cow’s first digestive chamber, which could lead to reductions in methane emissions from dairy cattle.


As concern about climate change rises, researchers are working to develop innovative strategies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, methane being one of them.


Methane makes up 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally and it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.


The cattle which is raised for dairy and beef products, produces 25 percent of methane emissions in the United States, according to a university press release.


The grant will fund three years of research during which Pitta hopes to better understand microbial associations in the rumen that are essential for methane mitigation and will study how methane inhibitors function in cows that naturally produce excessive amounts of methane, as well as in cows that naturally produce lower amounts, a university press release says.


According to a university press release, microbes in the rumen assist in the cows’ digestive process by breaking down plant material and in the process, some microbes release hydrogen as a byproduct.


One of these microbes is known as methanogens, which in a group are called archaea and are present in the rumen to consume this hydrogen to ensure that it doesn’t build up excessively in the cow’s gut.


But methanogens can also turn hydrogen into harmful methane, which the cows must emit, though the livestock industry is struggling to keep up with methane.


According to a university press release, Pitta says that researchers have tried to limit methane formation by changing cows’ diets and even using probiotics, but the success of these approaches remains unclear, because of the complicated balance between methanogens and other microbes in a healthy cow.  


Thus, Pitta is collaborating with other researchers at Penn State to further understand this delicate balance and she is uses advanced genetic sequencing technology to analyze the microbial community in the rumen, tracking the impact on cows that have and have not consumed the compound.


So far, the results are promising.


Eventually, Pitta would like to incorporate natural products into cows’ diets to reduce methane even further and plans to develop advanced screening methods to better understand the rumen’s microbial and methanogen balance, according to a university press release.


She will then combine her findings with data from milk production and feed-consumption profiles, and microbial fermentation, leading to an understanding of which microbes and genes could be inhibited to improve the microbial fermentation process.


Pitta’s findings may not only decrease methane emissions but will also help farmers decrease their costs as well.



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