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Cows and the ozone layer.

If we presume that herbivores, that is most of our domestic animals (cows, sheep, horses etc.) feed on hay, grass and chaff, then we are very wrong. These animals do eat vegetable matter, but they do not live on it. By eating grass, they simply prepare, tear up and moisten the matter for the millions of micro organisms that are present within their digestive systems. All ruminants have a specially designed stomach for this that consists of four compartments, which are basically incubators for the symbiotic bacteria and ciliates. And horses, not being ruminants, make use of a so-called appendix performing the same function. 

Millions of bacteria and ciliates throw themselves at this previously prepared vegetable matter, as they are the only ones that are able to digest the cellulose with the aid of special enzymes, which are not possessed by any of the higher order animals. The host receives the result of this digestion in the form of fatty acids, usually butyric acid, some microbes are simply digested when they pass to the intestine. I should also point out here that the inhabitiatns rumen are a highly specialized microorganism, which do not exist in nature apart from inside the digestive systems of herbivores. They have special needs - they are anaerobic, and in the rumen the first part of the digestive system is anaerobic. Here, mainly buturic acid is formed from the cellulose, and as a by-product a flammable gaseous combination of methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide is formed. This is released into the atmosphere when they burp. And they do this very well and frequently (camel is a master in this respect). In fact, herbivores could never be smokers due to this very reason. Horses emit this flammable mixture also, but they do it from their other end.

The release of methane into the environment is connected to another, very serious environmental problem - the destruction of the ozone layer, also linked to the  phenomenon of global warming. Methane, due to its specific physico-chemical properties, is the main destroyer of ozone as well as a thermal insulator of the earth atmosphere. 

One cow can daily excrete about 200 to 400 liters of methane, which altogether, taking into account a worldwide perspective, gives a total of 50 million tones of gas annually. And this is a huge ecological problem as it is half of the total annual production of methane worldwide that is released into the atmosphere. The main culprit here is Ruminococcus albus, but unfortunately, without it, no cow would survive. However, unexpectedly, the kangaroo may provide an answer for this. Kangaroos have a symbiotic bacteria that do the very same job, but release much less methane. The future now belongs to genetic engineering - the transferring of kangaroo bacteria into cows… Experiments have already started, we'll soon see what the results are like.




(C) (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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February  2003


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