US researchers delve into make-up of gut bacteria in horses

Amy Biddle, left, works with student researchers Hailey Seigel, center, and Barbara Hahn. Photo: UDaily/Wenbo Fan
Amy Biddle, left, works with student researchers Hailey Seigel, center, and Barbara Hahn. Photo: UDaily/Wenbo Fan

American researchers are collecting samples from across the country in a bid to identify the “normal” make-up of gut bacteria in healthy horses.

The study team also hopes to establish if the make-up of the gut bacteria, the microbiome, changes as horses age.

The Equine Microbiome Project is led by the Biddle Laboratory in the University of Delaware’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

The findings may ultimately help scientists and horse owners understand more about the causes of life-threatening colics, which have been associated with changes in bacteria in the hindgut.

“Horses’ digestive systems are very sensitive to changes, stress or diet,” said Amy Biddle, assistant professor of animal and food sciences at the university.

“And as we’re learning in the human microbiome, there is a constant conversation between the gut microbes and the host, but there hasn’t been a large-scale effort to understand those conversations and those relationships in horses.

“There have been several smaller studies but in terms of a large-scale effort, there really isn’t any large study. What we’re hoping to do is to get as many samples as possible, from all over the country. So far people have been very generous.”

In just two weeks, since starting the project, the laboratory group has sent out 36 kits to horse owners in states ranging from Massachusetts and Virginia to Oregon and California, and there is a waiting list of people interested in submitting samples.

They have asked owners who provide samples to also provide them with details about the horses, such as the animal’s history, any medication it has taken, exercise habits, and what it eats.

They are hoping to get samples from hundreds of horses across the country. As samples come in, they will extract DNA and do sequencing to correlate those sequences with the data from the owners.

The horses will then be grouped by age, gender, breed, geographic location, diet, exercise and stress level.

Among the questions they are trying to answer is what the “normal” gut microbiome is for healthy horses and if it changes as horses age.

Identifying the microbiome differences associated with health and disease is a necessary first step to designing therapies to restore balance and function to the digestive system of horses with colic or with chronic laminitis, which has also been linked to gut imbalances.

The laboratory group comprises six undergraduate students and a volunteer.

The students are Maryn Jordan, Brian Chambers and Hailey Siegel, all juniors in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and seniors Jessica Spleen, Barbara Hahn and Justin Berg. Candy Curro is the volunteer.

The project is also seeking crowdfunding to support the work.

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