Israeli Researchers Cut Air Pollution by Reducing Gas Output from Cows

This is the ritual law that Hashem has commanded: Instruct B’nei Yisrael to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. Numbers 19:2 (The Israel Bible™)

Cows are certainly beneficial for the milk they produce and the meat they provide – to the chagrin of vegetarians and vegans – but it is at a heavy price to the environment. 

Bovines, which release methane (CH4) gas from both ends of their gastrointestinal tract, are responsible for 14.5% of all types of emissions related to human activity and 37% of all methane emissions. A single cow produces, on average, between 70 and 120 kilograms of methane per year. There are about 1.5 billion cows around the world. Ruminant (chewing the cud) livestock can produce 250 to 500 liters of methane per day. It takes about a decade for methane to break down, but it is a precursor of ozone gas, and both gases are involved in global warming.

The 20-year global warming potential of methane is 84, meaning that over those two decades, it traps 84 times more heat per mass unit than carbon dioxide (CO2) and 32 times the effect when accounting for aerosol interactions.

But Israeli scientists seem to be on the way to reducing damage to the environment. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beersheba has successfully manipulated a cow’s microbiome (the genetic material of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that live on and inside its body) the first time. By learning to control the microbiome, scientists can minimize or even prevent cow emissions of methane. 

Prof. Itzhak Mizrahi, a member of the department of life sciences in BGU’s Faculty of Natural Sciences and a member of the Israel National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN) headed the team. Earlier this year, he was awarded a European Research Council consolidator grant and a DIP grant aimed at promoting excellence in German-Israeli research cooperation and to give substantial support to joint projects of outstanding quality.

Microbial communities, which are everywhere, drive many basic processes in our everyday life, in areas that include agriculture, health, and the environment. Mizrahi’s group is involved in understanding the ecological and evolutionary forces that shape microbial communities in nature and specifically in gut environments. He and his team recently published their methane gas discovery in the prestigious journal Nature Communications

Microbes begin to be introduced at birth and produce a unique microbiome that evolves over time. Working for three years experimenting on 50 cows, the Mizrahi group that included Prof. Eran Halperin’s group at the University of California at Los Angeles divided them into two groups. One gave birth naturally, while the other gave birth through cesarean section. That difference was enough to change the development and composition of the microbiome of the cows from each group. 

This finding essentially made possible the development of an algorithm to predict the development of the cow microbiome that will predict how these evolve over time based on its present composition.  

“Now that we know we can influence the microbiome development, we can use this knowledge to modulate microbiome composition to lower the environmental impact of cows on our planet by guiding them to our desired outcomes,” explained Mizrahi, who has studied the microbiomes of cows, fish and other species to prepare us for a world shaped by climate change. 

Reducing methane emissions from cows will reduce global warming. Engineering healthier fish, which is another of Mizrahi’s projects, is especially important as the oceans empty of fish and aquaculture becomes the major source of seafood. 

The mission of NIBN is to conduct multi-disciplinary, applied and innovative research guided by a biotechnological vision and to lead the commercialization of novel technologies developed by its researchers. They focus on cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune and metabolic diseases, human genetic disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and applied biotechnology, including AgBio. 

The NIBN has 24 leading BGU faculty members, nearly 175 graduate students including post-doctoral fellows and some 40 technical and administrative staff. It holds a patent portfolio of around 50 patent families and NIBN members have published over 800 articles in leading scientific journals. Our success stories include five technologies that have been out-licensed and have either led to the establishment of spin-off companies or have been directly incorporated into the pipelines of Bio companies.