As humans often learn the hard way, your diet and gut health are directly intertwined. Genomic researchers working on a project to improve disease resilience in Canadian pork production are looking to take advantage of this relationship. Understanding the connection is a complex task, but one that could feed the industry’s desire for better pig health.
“This project started with exploring how we could change pig diets and benefit their health by ensuring the population of microbes in the gut supports immunity,” said Natalie Diether, PhD student in Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta. “The gut is a very immune-active organ and important for overall immune response.”
Gut check time
With weaned pigs, the control of gut pathogens is particularly important. Improving weaning transition by reducing scours and length of illness can be achieved by supporting the beneficial population of gut microbes through diet. With that in mind, researchers looked at two dietary treatments in weaned pigs that should help with the transition: an organic acid and a cocktail of feed enzymes.
“The really interesting question is when you use one of these treatments, what is changing in the microbial population that is important for gut health? We want to link dietary tools that decrease antibiotic use with gut microbes. If you change the diet to benefit those microbes, they should produce different metabolites [substances formed in or necessary for metabolism] depending on what is in the diet.”
The acid test
The knowledge on the effects of benzoic acid and feed enzymes can go a long way to informing feeding strategies for producers and nutritionists.
“If we can better understand what is happening during the challenge of weaning, it could be very informative for gut health during times of stress. This may enable us to do a better job of keeping pigs healthy in the face of disease while decreasing antibiotic use in livestock overall.”
As well, by studying metabolites and microbes, researchers aren’t relying solely on what they see in an animal, but are gaining a clearer picture of how the microbes affect the pig from a mechanistic perspective.
“The more we understand that, the more we can implement good approaches. Instead of just looking at animal outcomes, we are trying to make sense of how products like enzymes or benzoic acid work to affect those outcomes, and there’s real power in that knowledge to influence health.”
One finding of note was that when pigs are fed benzoic acid, an increase in the active form of benzoic acid can be found all the way down to the large intestine.
“When reading about benzoic acid, we hadn’t seen any reference to that being the case. But through our research, we are seeing that this product does indeed reach the large intestine in a form that could impact microbial populations. This may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we will be able to show with this data about substances moving through the gut. If we know what these products are doing, we can identify which ones are worthy of further exploration and are promising candidates for this new paradigm of pig raising and feeding strategies.”
Intestinal research may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it leads to healthier pigs, the results will be easy to digest.