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Why strain matters in feed additives

Steve Lerner for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 January 2021
Feed additives

While many nutritionists and producers are aware of probiotics and the potential benefits of feeding them in commercial animal operations, it is not clear to all how to distinguish proven and effective probiotic products from costly, ineffective microbial feed additives.

If it doesn’t work, then it really doesn’t matter how cheap it is. So understanding how to choose the right probiotic to meet your needs is essential.

The most important feature of a probiotic is the type of bacteria or live yeast it contains. When thinking about type of bacteria, genus, species and, most importantly, the strain of the organism must be considered.

A strain is an individual organism and all of its trillions and trillions of nearly identical copies. Here’s a trivial example to make this clearer. Consider all dogs on planet Earth. All dogs are classified by zoologists as genus species Canis lupus. For illustrative purposes only, please consider breed of dog to be conceptually similar to strain of bacteria. There are well over 300 pure breeds of dogs. Suppose our purpose for choosing a breed of dog is to discourage people from trespassing on our property.

On one hand, we could consider acquiring an English mastiff, a breed that weighs on average between 170 and 190 pounds. The largest English mastiff ever recorded weighed 343 pounds and was almost 8 feet long from nose to tail. On the other hand, we could consider a chihuahua which, based on its breed’s standard, can’t weigh more than 5.9 pounds. Both animals are Canis lupus. From a genetic standpoint, they could cross-breed successfully. That said, we would strongly suggest the English mastiff would be the better choice than a chihuahua for the purpose of defending our property. In fact, if we could clone the best individual example of an English mastiff for that purpose, then we would have a strain.

The difference in genetics between you, the reader, and the fastest Olympic sprinter in the world, both examples of Homo sapiens, is a tiny fraction – less than one-tenth of 1%. Yet the gifts that differences in a relatively small number of genes impart to that sprinter are immense. For bacteria, members of the same genus and species, for example, Bacillus subtilis, a commonly used probiotic organism, can have as much as 18% genetic diversity. That’s nearly twice as much of the genetic difference between people and mice.

We know from the scientific literature that the gifts those genetic differences impart to some individual strains of a species of bacteria make them much more effective than others at being beneficial when fed to an animal – at being probiotic.

The goal of a differentiated bioscience company is to find and isolate those individual organisms, to produce trillions of identical copies through fermentation and to test and eventually use those strains as the seed stock for our products.

Chr. Hansen has a commercial strain bank with over 40,000 strains of hundreds of species of bacteria. Continuous work is being done to add new strains to this invaluable resource. Our innovation scientists are happy to take a stroll through the woods, picking up samples of the flora and fauna along the way to bring back to the lab and to test for the presence of novel bacteria. Chr. Hansen scientists are able to determine the entire genetic structure of each strain, their DNA and to match differences in genetics to differences in biological actions of those strains.

Strains can be tested in a way that ensures they are completely safe to feed to animals. This testing determines how these organisms will interact in the feed, with other organisms that they encounter and with the animals that consume them to ensure they will be effective probiotics, thereby selecting the best-candidate strains to drive development of effective new products and to give customers a reason to believe in the efficacy of these products. This is well and truly why we say, “Strain matters.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when the mere mention of genetics struck fear in the hearts of people, and bacteria – or more appropriate in the lingo of those times, germs – were things to be killed. Disinfection was the rule. Happily, those times are behind us and we have an ever-growing appreciation of the science of microbiology.

As a society, we’re comfortable with the idea that consuming probiotics can be good for us, our children and, certainly, the animals in our care. We are beginning to understand the complexity and importance of our microbiota and its role in keeping us healthy. As we continue to demystify the science of microbial life and can communicate that science in terms easily understood by all, then consumers will have a sound basis from which to make informed decisions. We believe sharing the idea that strain matters is a move in the right direction and in good keeping with one of our core values to work for a better world. end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration courtesy of Chr. Hansen.

To learn more visit, Why Strain Matters.

Steve Lerner
  • Steve Lerner

  • Head of Marketing and Product Management
  • Chr. Hansen