Improving cattle feed efficiency for sustainable beef production and increased food availability – meet Asst. Prof. Phillip Myer.
April 1, 2020
Intensively-farmed livestock is a high-cost industry with global implications1. With our high dependency on meat for our proteins, feeding the world is an ever-growing challenge.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, beef production in the USA is raised for 2019 on a faster pace of harvest; cattle prices continue to rise as does the price of feed (corn, soybeans and alfalfa)2. Meat consumption is on the rise3. As the population grows, sustainable production methods are ever a relevant concern.
While some call for more sustainable protein4, others, like Asst. Prof. Phillip Myer from the Animal Science department at the University of Tennessee, look into optimizing the energy that a cow can harvest from its feed. His research is featured in a new report, retaking the field. Its long-term goal is to develop novel nutritional and microbial tools. These can be then used for breeding cattle that are more likely to propagate desirable rumen microbes, which enable the improvement of their feed efficiency — thus contributing to sustainable beef production.
How did you first get interested in science and microbiome research?
I have always had a keen interest in science, but it wasn’t until I took a course with a great science teacher and mentor in high school that I realized the potential to make science a career. As my career and education advanced, my initial interests in microbial ecology and microbiome research stemmed from my position at the United States Department of Agriculture in the Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), which carried over to my Ph.D. The research was focused on fermentation biotechnology, which aligned well with my rumen microbiology focus.
Can you give a summary of the project you submitted for the Microbiome Awards?
Optimizing the cow’s microbial capacity to harvest energy from feed via genetic selection programs stands to make great advancement in increasing food availability. Interestingly, researchers have only begun to identify microbial groups that are heritable and also linked to cattle production. One objective of the work in our laboratory is to determine the potential to breed beef cattle more likely to propagate production-desirable rumen microbes. We look to establish the influence of host genetic variation on rumen microbiome composition and microbial heritability. Based on these learnings, we will be able to identify persistent microbes characteristic of efficient cattle. This will directly aid efforts for the genetic selection of specific aspects of the ruminal microbiome.
A typical day in the lab consists of qPCR, PCR, library preparation, DNA sequencing, and a lot of DNA extraction.
What do you find is the most interesting aspect or the most surprising result of your research?
Although the importance of the rumen microbiome is well established, attempts to manipulate the microbiome to improve cattle production have not been met with long-term success. There is, therefore, a critical need to identify and distinguish the host genetic factors that establish and influence the rumen microbiome.
The work in our lab is positioned to begin to define the host genomic links to heritable rumen microbes. I expect future work in this field to focus on determining the physiological mechanisms defining the host-microbe interactions and heritabilities.
What kind of microbiome research do you perform and how does it impact health and disease or the environment? Where do you see this heading in the next five years?
Examination of each major factor that may influence the nutritional status of beef cattle, from diet to microbiota, contributes to a comprehensive understanding of ruminant nutrition. Such knowledge impacts livestock production systems, resource consumption, and the economic viability of agricultural enterprises. Optimizing the efficiency of feed utilization is of increasing importance as the cost of beef cattle production rises.
Within the next five years, research in the field of rumen microbiology and my program will progress to and directly inform the development of strategies to improve nutrition and feed efficiency in beef cattle through microbiome manipulation and genetic selection strategies.
What are your hobbies?
I enjoy hiking with my wife in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as playing music on my piano, cello, and guitar.
What are the major challenges you face in your research with regards to sample collection, nucleic acid isolation and data analysis?
The greatest challenge is time-efficient nucleic acid isolation. It is quite difficult to extract high-quality DNA from rumen samples to ensure the accurate representation of the rumen microbiome, as many microbes are fiber-adherent and require extensive processing and time.
Phillip Myer received his Ph.D. in microbiology from Purdue University in 2013. He then completed postdoctoral work as a postdoctoral research associate with the United States Department of Agriculture from 2013-2015. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Rumen Microbiology at the University of Tennessee.
Phillip R. Myer is interested in ecological and metagenomic studies of microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of beef cattle that are important to ruminant nutrition. He develops and applies molecular and microbiological tools to understand the biological mechanisms, explaining differences in feed efficiency in beef cattle. Furthermore, he looks into the rumen microbiome effects on beef cattle production. Efforts to address these research interests include strategies focusing on the relationships among the microbial populations of the GIT, diet, management, and host genetics.
Phillip Myer, UTIA animal scientist, is among the researchers featured in a new report, retaking the field, issued by the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation and 20 FedByScience research institutions, which highlights the most important fields to advance in agriculture by the year 2030.
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