An average U.S. beef cow burps up more than a hundred pounds of methane each year, thanks to bacteria in its gut. Multiply this by 99 million cows — and about 2% of the U.S.'s contribution to global warming comes out of the mouths of livestock. Andrè-Denis Wright, professor and department chair of UVM's Department of Animal Science, aims to improve these statistics — and to help farmers at the same time.
"In America, agriculture alone produces more greenhouse gases than all the industries, transportation and animals in Australia — combined," says Andre-Denis Wright, fresh to UVM from Australia's national science laboratory.
At UVM, he will continue his decade-long quest to develop a vaccine that targets the methane-producing bacteria (methanogens) in the front stomach, or rumen, of livestock. "The big goal is to increase their efficiency of digestion and reduce their environmental footprint at the same time," he says.
Wright believes it's possible to develop a vaccine that both cuts emissions and also increases milk and meat production. "If you can reduce methane production, you're returning some of that energy back to the animal," he says. Wright projects that a successful vaccine in dairy cows could increase milk production by 5% or more.
In a previous experiment, highlighted in the journal Nature, Wright and his former colleagues in Australia demonstrated that in 30 sheep a vaccine could reduce methane output by almost 8%. But subsequent experiments yielded different results because of diverse bacterial presences based on location and seasons.
"If we're going to design strategies and protocols for reducing methane-producing bugs we need to know about the bugs were trying to get rid of," he says. And that opens a big can of bacteria.
With the goal of collecting information on these methane-causing bugs and ultimately creating a vaccine that reduces all types of them, Wright has traveled the world, collecting gut bacteria from South American birds to Norwegian reindeer and beyond.
"The trick is getting something that covers all the methanogens from A to Z."