In the world, there are over 1 billion cows and calves, roughly 4.3 times as many cows as people living in the United States. Cows are the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide, with a single cow producing 220 pounds of methane gas a year. Methane (CH4) is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas, composed of carbon and hydrogen. Being a potent greenhouse gas, it impacts climate change by increasing global warming according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Methane affects our environment but it can also impact humans “high levels of methane can reduce the amount of oxygen breathed from the air. This can result in mood changes, slurred speech, vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, facial flushing, and headache. In severe cases, there may be changes in breathing and heart rate, balance problems, numbness, and unconsciousness“. Although this is in extreme cases. Recently, scientists may have discovered a methane inhibitor that could reduce the amount of methane cows release. This source comes from an interesting source though: Baby kangaroo feces.
Researchers from Washington State University wanted to figure out a solution to lower methane gas production rates in cows seeing as people enjoy eating red meat and taking them entirely out of the equation is not a feasible answer. They performed a study using baby kangaroo fecal matter to develop a microbial culture that inhibited methane production in a cow’s stomach stimulator. This resulted in cows producing acetic acid – is also known as ethanoic acid, ethylic acid, vinegar acid, and methane carboxylic acid; it has the chemical formula of CH3COOH. Acetic acid is a byproduct of fermentation and gives vinegar its characteristic odor. Vinegar is about 4-6% acetic acid in water – in place of methane. Acetic acid is not just a waste product in a cow like methane but is actually beneficial for the cow as it helps muscle growth. Not only would lowering rates of methane production in cows be beneficial for the environment but also for the cow as the cow wastes around 10% of its energy in methane production. Researchers have tried chemical inhibitors but the methane-producing bacteria has become resistant each time. The actual experiment all began with the researcher’s study of fermentation and anaerobic processes, which lead to the creation of an artificial lumen designed to stimulate cow digestion. Then they began investigating how they could outcompete the methane-producing bacteria and learned that – specifically – baby kangaroos have acetic acid-producing bacteria instead of methane-producing bacteria. Researchers were “unable to separate out specific bacteria that might be producing the acetic acid, the researchers used a stable mixed culture developed from the feces of the baby kangaroo.” Eventually, the acetic acid bacteria was able to replace the methane-producing microbes for several months having similar growth rates. Researchers hope to eventually test their system outside of a stimulated rumen and on a real cow sometime in the future. This connects to our unit of enzymes and enzyme inhibitors. Enzymes allow the cell to perform tasks with less energy by binding to reactant molecules and holding them in a way that breaks the chemical bond allowing bond-forming processes to take place more easily. Enzyme inhibitors are molecules that bind to the active site – competitive inhibition – or the allosteric site – noncompetitive inhibition – making the enzyme unbindable, reducing the rate of enzyme-catalyzed reaction, or preventing it from happening altogether. This is what the researchers are trying to do in their study, inhibit the enzyme in the methane-producing bacteria and allow the acetic acid bacteria to grow instead. Overall, if this process proves to work in real cows it could be a huge advancement in the slowing down of climate change.
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