Ruminants like cows and sheep produce vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions via inefficient rumination process of their forage. They also suffer from intestinal parasites and synthetic drugs are needed to battle parasite infections. Global resistance against the parasitic drugs is emerging and we thus need alternative ways to control the parasites. In a long run it would be optimal, if we could find or develop a forage species that contained such natural compounds that would enable simultaneous decrease of methane emissions and parasite load without the risk of resistance formation.
We know that plant polyphenols, especially tannins may be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ruminants and to replace synthetic anthelmintic drugs to benefit ruminant health. At the same time tannins may be able to modify digestion of e.g. proteins by ruminants to affect both milk yield and milk and meat quality. However, at the moment very little is known of the structure-activity relationships that govern the efficacy of tannins in these environmentally important issues. Most of this is due to the lack of knowledge of the exact tannin structures that show high or low activities. This is where the tools of tannin chemistry are needed, and where even new tools need to be created.
The EU-funded LegumePlus project combines high-quality tannin chemistry with experts e.g. from the fields of agronomy, animal nutrition, plant breeding and parasitology. The 4 year research project kicked off in 2012, and its key objectives are to further investigate how bioactive forage legumes can improve protein utilisation in ruminant livestock farming. Of equal importance is the ability of these legumes to combat parasitic nematodes. The project reflects the need to respect nitrogen use and losses, methane emissions and ultimate food quality with a focus on milk, cheese and meat. Finally, all this is linked together with the knowledge of tannin types present in the studied legumes and with the structure-activity results obtained by purified tannin molecules.
The €4m project is coordinated by Prof. Irene Mueller-Harvey of Reading University in the UK and is generously funded by the Marie Curie Research Training Network until 2016. 14 partners, employing 16 research fellows, from across Europe are involved, with researchers and experts from these academic institutions and commercial organisations contributing to training and research packages.
At the University of Turku the project is coordinated by prof. Juha-Pekka Salminen. It funds one PhD student (MSc Nicolas Baert) and gives training to another one (MSc Marica Engström) together with a number of undergraduates (Milla Leppä, Janne Koskenoja). So far we have had the pleasure to host five early stage researchers from the other institutions involved in the LegumePlus project.