Goat gut microbes could help create bio fuels, study finds

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A study operated by UC Santa Barbara in collaboration with Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley researchers found that gut microbes in goats could possibly help create biofuels and replacements for unsustainable chemicals.

According to Michelle O’Malley, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, the study was conducted with one goat named Elway from the Santa Barbara Zoo.

“We essentially took Elway’s fecal droppings, isolated DNA and cultivated a whole bunch of cultures so that we could capture the gut microbiome of the goat,” O’Malley said.

Though the gut microbes observed in the study help break down the goat’s food, the researchers wanted to observe how the microbes could turn plant waste into chemicals used in products, O’Malley said. In sequencing the microbes’ DNA, the researchers hoped to capture their chemical activities.

In the study, they cultivated hundreds of cultures of microbes and were able to isolate novel genomes and potential enzymes that could be useful for metabolic engineering, according to O’Malley.

O’Malley and her colleagues hope to build similar teams of microbes to perform multiple different tasks to break down plant waste into useful products. In creating these teams of microbes, researchers would look to nature for inspiration.

“We wanted to learn from nature to figure out how microbes do difficult jobs out in native ecosystems so we can replicate that either in a lab setting or in a bioprocessing setting,” O’Malley said.

Additionally, researchers found fungi that are not seen as much in analogous studies because they are low in abundance, O’Malley said. O’Malley added that these fungi greatly assist in methane production.

Though O’Malley is a chemical engineer, she wanted to look at “weird microbes” and apply them to real-world products and scientific innovations.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from so-called ‘weird places’ like the goat gut microbiome,” O’Malley said. “There’s lots of places on the globe where microbes do some awesome chemistry.”

Contact Robson Swift at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.