Methane produced by methanogenic archaea in ruminants contributes significantly to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The host genetic link controlling microbial methane production is unknown and appropriate genetic selection strategies are not developed. We used sire progeny group differences to estimate the host genetic influence on rumen microbial methane production in a factorial experiment consisting of crossbred breed types and diets. Rumen metagenomic profiling was undertaken to investigate links between microbial genes and methane emissions or feed conversion efficiency. Sire progeny groups differed significantly in their methane emissions measured in respiration chambers. Ranking of the sire progeny groups based on methane emissions or relative archaeal abundance was consistent overall and within diet, suggesting that archaeal abundance in ruminal digesta is under host genetic control and can be used to genetically select animals without measuring methane directly. In the metagenomic analysis of rumen contents, we identified 3970 microbial genes of which 20 and 49 genes were significantly associated with methane emissions and feed conversion efficiency respectively. These explained 81% and 86% of the respective variation and were clustered in distinct functional gene networks. Methanogenesis genes (e.g. mcrA and fmdB) were associated with methane emissions, whilst host-microbiome cross talk genes (e.g. TSTA3 and FucI) were associated with feed conversion efficiency. These results strengthen the idea that the host animal controls its own microbiota to a significant extent and open up the implementation of effective breeding strategies using rumen microbial gene abundance as a predictor for difficult-to-measure traits on a large number of hosts. Generally, the results provide a proof of principle to use the relative abundance of microbial genes in the gastrointestinal tract of different species to predict their influence on traits e.g. human metabolism, health and behaviour, as well as to understand the genetic link between host and microbiome.
Bibliographical noteFunding: The project was supported by grants from the Scottish Government as part of the 2011-2016 commission, Programme 2, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the devolved administrations through the UK Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Inventory Research Platform (http://www.ghgplatform.org.uk) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC; BB/J004243/1, BB/J004235/1) UK. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
We thank Laura Nicoll, Lesley Deans, Claire Broadbent, Scott Gray and Alex Moir for the excellent technical support.