A gut full of health

Emma Allen Vercoe Close-Up_University of Guelph_Photographer Martin Schwalbe_DSCF0262 - webBy Jeanine Moyer for AgInnovation Ontario

Guelph – The key to better health is through our gut. At least that’s what Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, Associate Professor at the University of Guelph, has concluded from her research on the human gut microbiota ecosystem.

It’s a big term but simply put, microbiota is a collection of microbes found within the gut. And those microbes are important, because they’re strongly linked to the overall health of a human or animal.

Dr. Allen-Vercoe’s latest research is applying what she’s learned about the human gut microbiota to pigs to enhance the gut system and improve the overall health of the animal. Because just like humans, better health means less disease and less antibiotic use.

“Our goal is to reduce the use of antibiotics in pigs,” says Dr. Allen-Vercoe. “If we can naturally improve an animal’s health by colonizing its gut with healthy microbes, the animal’s overall health will improve and reduce the need for antibiotic treatments.”

Still in the early stages of research, Dr. Allen-Vercoe and her team are applying proven research from her studies with humans to feeding trials with pigs. She’s feeding them natural, healthy microbes that grow and colonize in a pig’s gut to create a diverse microbial ecosystem.

“By increasing the gut microbiota diversity in pigs, we expect to increase the health and fitness of the animals – in particular their ability to resist disease and respond to vaccines and their ability to gain weight,” says Dr. Allen-Vercoe. Emma Allen-Vercoe, in black - webOnce the animals’ guts have been augmented with healthy microbes, this will help farmers avoid the need for using antibiotics while still delivering a quality end product to consumers.

“The gut microbiota is a virtual vital organ,” says Dr. Allen-Vercoe, explaining that pigs, like many humans, have a poor or selective diet and have been exposed to antibiotics, both of which kill healthy microbes and lead to an unhealthy gut microbiota.

Scientists have found many diseases, such as allergies, infections and metabolic disorders, linked to poor or damaged microbiota.

“If we can improve the gut microbiota ecosystem we can make a lot of positive changes to an animal’s health,” says Dr. Allen-Vercoe.

She is using funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs-University of Guelph’s Gryphon’s LAAIR (Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research) program to develop and optimize a microbiota ecosystem feed product, testing a feed additive that can be given to sows in the late stages of pregnancy.

The feed additive microbes would be passed naturally from sow to piglets, colonizing each animal’s gut. Additional doses could be given to pigs as they grow, particularly during stressful periods such as weaning to help keep the animal healthy.

Her product is different than probiotic feed additives currently available for pigs – it provides a multi-species ecosystem that colonizes, unlike probiotics that cannot colonize and need to be fed daily.

“This is a new approach to feeding and managing farm animals that offers significant potential advantages,” says Dr. Allen-Vercoe. “Good health is important and we can’t forget about the most diverse ecosystem in the body – the gut.”

The Gryphon’s LAAIR is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

Photo source: Emma Allen-Vercoe; photos by Martin Schwalbe