Kiwi-led research has led the world a step closer to tackling what's been a headache for New Zealand and other nations: developing low-emission sheep and cattle.
Today, major scientific journal Nature Biotechnology published new insights from a New Zealand-steered global project called the Hungate1000.
The effort has produced a reference set of genome sequences of microbes found in the stomachs of sheep and cattle - ruminant animals that greatly contribute to our greenhouse gas emissions by belching methane.
Led by former AgResearch scientist Dr Bill Kelly, and AgResearch scientist Dr Sinead Leahy, the project brought together nearly 60 scientists from 14 research organisations across nine countries.
The catalogue they created turned out 501 rumen microbial genomes for scientists to study; only 15 had been available before the project.
The project was named after Bob Hungate, an American scientist who trained the first generation of New Zealand rumen microbiologists in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Bob Hungate developed the pioneering technique of growing anaerobic bacteria — that technique of culturing the microbes that then have their genomes sequenced has been the cornerstone of our project," Kelly said.
The effort offered a new understanding of what exactly was taking place inside a rumen.
"Hungate1000 means we can now start to reveal the intricacies of how the rumen microbial community functions, and provides a roadmap for where to take the science next," he said.
"This data can be translated into interventions that are useful, such as identifying targets for vaccines and inhibitors to reduce methane emissions and improve productivity, among other things."
Leahy, who was currently seconded to the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), said the project represented a major scientific advancement in the field of rumen microbiology - an area of science that up until recently had largely been unexplored.
"These microbes in the stomachs of ruminants are crucially important — they convert grass and other dietary components into smaller compounds that the sheep or cow uses to make meat and milk," she said.
"The data we've made available with Hungate1000 will underpin the development of technologies to target these microbes and aid productivity or reduce greenhouse gas emissions — you need to know what you're targeting to make a specific impact on the rumen microbiome environment."
NZAGRC deputy director Dr Andy Reisinger said Hungate1000 was central to the work that the NZAGRC was managing.
"Hungate1000 shows what a powerhouse the rumen is in converting digestible plant material to energy, and gives us a much better understanding of how we might be able to use science to influence that process," he said.
"This will help us find ways not only to enhance productivity but also to achieve emissions reductions and deliver solutions to farmers — such as inhibitors and vaccines — that don't affect their bottom lines."
The Hungate1000 data was now available as a community resource on the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute website.
NZAGRC director Dr Harry Clark said the project would not have come about without the financial support of the New Zealand Government.
"This project shows the power of international collaboration — we've been able to bring scientists together from around the world to create this resource that can benefit all countries, and New Zealand can be proud that we made it happen."