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Dr. Karl Dawson: The -omics of pet health

February 18, 2019

From nutrigenomics to metabolomics, scientists are exploring new frontiers to help pets live longer, healthier lives. 

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Dr. Karl Dawson. Click below to hear the full interview:




Tom:              Have we finally found ways to improve the well-being of our pets by understanding how nutrients interact with their genes? Here to discuss that question is Dr. Karl Dawson, vice president and chief scientific officer at Alltech. Dr. Dawson directs activities at the company's bioscience centers around the world, including Alltech’s Center for Nutrigenomics and Applied Animal Nutrition, where he is the co-director. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Dawson.


                        The science of nutrigenomics has been your focus for many years, and you've applied that body of knowledge to agriculture. But, here, we're talking about something that's near and dear to everyone who shares living space with an animal of one species or another, whether they live on a farm or in a big city. Let's go to that question. Can nutrigenomics be used to improve the well-being of our pets?


Karl:                Nutrigenomics has been used a lot to understand health, digestion, the way nutrients influence an animal's growth. In the last several years, we've begun to focus a little bit more on not only the animal's genes — the composition and gene expression — but we’ve also started to look at the microorganisms that live in the gastrointestinal tract. This is a population that has a whole different set of genes to work with, and we have some new tools today that allow us to look at this. It's very important because, in many respects, we're starting to believe that this microbial population in the gut is almost like a separate organ in the animal. It has its own genetic makeup, and it is contributing a lot to the way those animals develop and respond to nutrients and their resistance to disease.


Tom:              You're thinking of the microbial presence as kind of an organ of its own?


Karl:                In and of itself.


Tom:              Interesting.


Karl:                That’s the concept that's really developing. If you look at human medicine or human physiology, we're starting to learn that, in fact, the microbial population in the gut and the way you influence it by eating is influencing such things as brain development, cardiovascular development and even the way your hormones are distributed throughout the body.


Tom:              Now, if the genetics influence how certain dietary components are associated with disease, is it possible to know how to adjust a pet's food to avoid disease?


Karl:                There's a lot of work that's been going on in this particular area. We’re looking to see what you can do to change the microbiota in particular, or this population of bacteria that live in the intestinal tract. We know quite a few things that are important. For example, we know what the distribution of microorganisms is in an animal that has acute diarrhea. We know that if we feed certain things, such as fiber, we can change the way that microbial population develops.


                        Now, it may not sound very exciting to everyone, but I've been a microbiologist for 35 years now, and this stuff really gets me excited. I could never really describe what microorganisms were there before. We could culture some and see them, but now we have new tools with high throughput sequencing techniques to allow us to separate out those microorganisms and see things we've never seen in the past.


Tom:              What sort of research related to pet nutrition has been happening in your laboratory lately?


Karl:                Well, we've been focusing a lot on what we can do to the microbial population. This is something that comes from the work we've done in livestock. We know that we can influence the way the microbial population develops. We have a line of feed supplements — whether you call them prebiotics or probiotics, both of those will influence the way the population develops. We've been interested to see what happens to the distribution or the profile in this microbial population when we change management as well as nutrition.


Tom:              When we talk about pets, we're talking about a wide variety of creatures — everything from dogs and cats to birds and fish, from snakes to pigs — you name it. How can it be determined among these different species which additives or ingredients best align with each species' diet and health? Can that be done?


Karl:                Well, I don't think we're quite there yet. We cannot tell you what the optimal beneficial microbial population looks like. That's probably a little bit of a disappointment for me because we've been doing all the detailed work on what profile of microorganisms is in the intestinal tract and what it's doing. We know we can change things, and we know that that's reflected in the health of the animal, its immune response and disease resistance. But we don't really know what the optimal way to do that is.


                        There is a new science that's coming up today, which is the idea of metabolomics. This is a little bit of a different area to look at. Not only does it look at the microbial population but, in this situation, we're also looking at metabolites — the compounds that these bacteria are producing. These compounds are very important because they do enter the bloodstream. You can measure them in plasma, for example. We know that these have significant influences on hormonal response — neurotransmitters. So, we're controlling such things as the way the animal eats; we can influence immunity in things like that. This is a different area that we're starting to delve into right now, and it's really bringing together the animal a little bit more with this microbial population that you find in the intestinal tract.


                        Metabolomics is still in its infancy, but that is where the answer is going to come from when it comes to understanding what microbes and nutrients do in the animal, because we’re influencing the way the metabolism of that animal is changing through their genetics — or their gene expressions — so we can understand that today.


Tom:              Metabolomics. Now you've given us yet another reason to be standing outside your door, tapping our toes, waiting for another interview in the future. This is going to be interesting. Are new foods on the horizon that will improve health — new foods that are based on this science?


Karl:                I think so. One of the exciting things that we've had the opportunity to do in the last couple of years is see the effects of such things as a probiotic, a bacterial supplement or a prebiotic. We can see what they're doing today. We know there are considerable differences in the prebiotics. For example, one of our products is a biomass product, a mannan-based product. There is such a thing as inulin. The two things act completely separately, so now that we can see what they're doing to the microbial population, we have the ability to start customizing products with very specific types of prebiotics, and maybe even probiotics, as we move forward. This is something that's revolutionary. We don't think that much about it, but never before have we been able to go in and say that a particular probiotic in the animal's food is changing what goes on in the gut and actually measuring what those changes look like. That's the whole area that's got the excitement in the scientific community: we're now able to see the changes.


Tom:              Tell us about developing a pet food that's intended to support heart health, brain function, joint health and overall well-being. Can those goals be achieved in a single feed, or are there other conflicting characteristics that have to be overcome?


Karl:                I think there's going to be some interaction there between nutrients. We're not going to be able to address everything. I think you can go after some of the ideal situations. We're a couple of years away from actually doing that sort of thing at this point in time, but it's very important to remember that we now have the tool to actually measure some of those issues. We're getting an idea of what we need to measure in the animal — for example, to overcome obesity in dogs. This is an area that plagues nearly everyone who is a dog owner. But we do know that there are certain surprising areas that allow us to change that. For example, some of the prebiotics we're looking at today change the structure of the intestinal tract, change the way nutrients are introduced into that animal, and actually address the hormonal imbalances that are associated with obesity. We're getting to the point where we know what to look for now, so it's going to be a relatively small step to say, “Here is, nutritionally, what we can do to change that.”


Tom:              What are the environmental implications of developing more efficiently- digested pet foods?


Karl:                I carry my little plastic bag around my dog every day, so there's an environmental impact that I think about a lot. There are a lot of things that can be done, but I think the overall approach to shifting the microbial population will change the digestion efficiency without changing the overall health status of the animal. Those two things have to go together. For example, there has been work done with fiber sources like beef pulp. Beef pulp is something that considerably changes the microbial population. It is somewhat indigestible, but it has a tremendous impact on the health of the animal. It actually improves digestion overall. There is a way to decrease fecal excretion — what we think about after we have to clean up after our dogs on our walk every evening.


Tom:              Is beef pulp being used in pet feeds?


Karl:                It is, to some extent, but it is not a standard addition. The other thing about beef pulp is you have to use it at very high concentrations in the diet to bring about these types of changes.


Tom:              As you explore the science of nutrigenomics and its application to pets, do you foresee a day when we will be extending the lifespans of these beloved animals?


Karl:                Oh, absolutely. I'm sure we're going to see that happen. Longevity is an issue for us all. A lot of that comes down to the overall health of the animal. As we look at such things as insulin resistance — which is seen in a lot of aging animals — those are things that can become controlled, and we have a pretty good idea of how to do that by using specific supplements today. Some of those will be mineral supplements as much as anything, but we do see ways of controlling that. They'll never live forever, but we will be able to enhance the health of those animals so that they are living longer. Not only that, we’ll improve the quality of life they have in their older years.


Tom:              Dr. Karl Dawson is vice president and chief scientific officer at Alltech. Thank you very much for being with us.


Karl:                Thank you.


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