Inside the guts of many animals, microbes break down the plant fibers ingested as part of their diet. These microbes are of interest to bioenergy researchers who want to learn from nature and apply these cellulosic degradation capabilities toward biofuel production. To this end, at the JGI, several sequencing projects have focused on the microbial communities in the guts of organisms such as termites, cows, and Tammar wallabies.
Some animals like the cow break down and ferment the biomass in their foregut, while termites count among hindgut fermenters. Another foregut fermenter is the hoatzin, a South American leaf-eating bird that is the focus of a 2009 JGI Community Sequencing Program project. The hoatzin breaks down plant biomass in its crop and its digestive system is similar enough to the cow’s that it’s been called “the flying cow of the Amazon.”
“Despite the significant differences in host phylogeny, body size, physiology, and diet, the function seems to shape the microbial communities involved in fermentation,” Godoy-Vitorino and her colleagues wrote. “Regardless of the independent origin of foregut fermentation in birds and mammals, organ function has led to the convergence of the microbial community structure in phylogenetically distant hosts.”