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IDing Livestock Gut Microbes Contributing to Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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“Increased to levels unprecedented” is how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described the rise of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions in their report on the physical science basis of climate change in 2013. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the atmospheric concentration of methane, a greenhouse gas some 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide has been steadily growing since the 18th century and has now increased by 50 percent compared to pre-industrial levels, exceeding 1,800 parts per billion.

The EPA attributes one-fifth of methane emissions to livestock such as cattle, sheep and other ruminants. In fact, ruminant livestock are the single largest source of methane emissions, and in a country like New Zealand (NZ), where the sheep outnumber people 7 to 1, that’s a big deal. However, not all ruminants are equal when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. It turns out that the amount of methane produced varies substantially across individual animals of the same ruminant species. To find out why this is so, a team of researchers led by the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) deployed high throughput DNA sequencing and specialized analysis techniques to explore the contents of the rumens of sheep in collaboration with NZ’s AgResearch Limited to see what role ruminant “microbiomes” (the microbes living in the rumen) play in this process. The study was published online June 6, 2014 in Genome Research.

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