Leading the study of microbiomes at the microscopic level is Dr. Ben Willing, an Assistant Professor with the University of Alberta, and Canada Research Chair in Microbiology of Nutrigenomics. Dr Willing is responsible for two activities within this Genome Alberta research: Activity 2.2 - Porcine Gut Microbiome; and Activity 2.3 - Manipulating Gut Microbiome to Enhance Resilience.
“Activity 2.2 is building on Dr. Bob Kemp’s project looking at genomes and how they influence resilience,” said Dr. Willing. “We are adding to that how microbiome populations impact resistance and resilience.”
As Willing explained, it comes back to the concept of ecological development.
“The idea is that our development is a product of genetics and interaction with our environment. How genes are expressed, especially related to immune function, is dependent on the pig’s interaction with microbes.”
Ultimately, the goal of Activity 2.2 is to characterize those interactions, looking at how microbiome composition relates to salmonella shedding, resilience in a challenging environment and how the microbiome impacts the development of vaccine response.
Mission to modify the microbiome
Apart from being .1 better than 2.2, Activity 2.3 takes things a step further.
“It examines the driving factors that can help us modify microbial populations to get the results we want,” said Willing. “So for elements like diet, birthweights and feed additives, how do they contribute to changes in the microbe population and how do those changes associate with health outcomes?”
The overarching goal, according to Willing, is to reveal characteristics in the microbiome that we can select for or introduce in standard operating procedures to add another level of resistance to pigs.
“To date this hasn’t been done much with pigs, but other experiments have transplanted microbes from resistant animals to susceptible ones and made the latter more resistant to enteric diseases like E. coli.”
As well, some connection has been made between microbes and immune function when comparing pigs raised outdoors to those in a more controlled environment.
“The outdoor pigs had more robust immune systems. We don’t want to raise pigs outdoors for a number of reasons, but we want to identify which microbes are associated with those stronger immune systems.”
Bracing for impact
Not only is all of this compelling from a research perspective, but it offers concrete benefits to the producer’s bottom line, as healthy pigs lead to healthy profits.
“By identifying the microbes that are central to driving these responses, we are providing both a product and a management tool for producers.”
In the process, they are facilitating a major change in perspective for many.
“The big thing is that we are turning the corner on looking at microbes as this constant source of pathogens,” said Willing. “Producers are seeing them as a source of good, not just evil.”
That’s significant, because past efforts to minimize microbes and operate in the most sterile way possible have often backfired.
“When reducing pathogens, you are also reducing protective organisms, so when the pathogen does appear the animals are less equipped to deal with it.”
Given the stakes, researchers are intent on breaking new ground to protect pig health, and industry is anxious to see the results.
Perhaps Yoda put it best: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Pig Researchers Hope for Macro Results with Microbiomes