Seaweed could be the answer for cheap, sustainable livestock feed, researcher says

[Canada] Seaweed could become a staple in the diet of Canadian livestock after researchers discovered it’s a sustainable and viable option for healthy digestion in cows — and humans.

Wade Abbott, a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and his team have been using a crystallography beam line at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron to study the structure of four enzymes and how they digest agarose, a carbohydrate found in red seaweed.

This research, which began in 2015, is somewhat of an extension of research from 2008 that showed Japanese people have more bacteria in their digestive tracts to digest the carbohydrates in nori seaweed. Abbott and his team wanted to see if this relationship extended to other seaweed varieties with different structures.

“Individual strains of bacteria each have this unique ability to digest different carbohydrates,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter what type of seaweed you eat … they have different chemical properties when you look at their carbohydrates and these chemical properties are actually recognized and harnessed by different strains of bacteria.”

The research was looking at human digestion rather than that of cows, but Abbott says understanding how this interaction happens in humans brings along the knowledge to expand the currently limited use of algae products.

As demand grows for quality proteins, the amount of arable land on the planet shrinks and feed prices go up. Having a fast-growing, sustainable feed stock such as seaweed would be an ideal way to supplement livestock diets, he said.

“What’s so interesting about seaweed is that nothing can compete with its productivity. It can grow up to a metre per day. So it grows rapidly; it’s loaded with nutrients; it doesn’t require arable land or fresh water to cultivate; and the list goes on. It’s just an extremely promising source of carbohydrates that could be utilized by both animals and humans.”

Implementing these changes in the agriculture industry won’t happen quickly — it would initially be more expensive than using traditional livestock feed until the infrastructure is put in place, he noted.

A Canadian company already produces seaweed as livestock feed, but the whole system is very much “still in its early days,” Abbott said.

“I think there is a lot of research that still needs to be done, but this to me looks like it has a very promising potential for Canadian agriculture.”


Photo: Culturing gut bacteria in the lab (shown in these test tubes) allows researchers ‎to determine which genes in the genomes of bacteria are activated and discover new enzymes that digest rare substrates like agarose. (Photo courtesy of Wade Abbott) SASKATOON

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