Opportunities to improve fiber degradation in the rumen: Microbiology, ecology, and genomics

Denis O. Krause, Stuart E. Denman, Roderick I. Mackie, Mark Morrison, Ann L. Rae, Graeme T. Attwood, Christopher S. McSweeney

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The degradation of plant cell walls by ruminants is of major economic importance in the developed as well as developing world. Rumen fermentation is unique in that efficient plant cell wall degradation relies on the cooperation between microorganisms that produce fibrolytic enzymes and the host animal that provides an anaerobic fermentation chamber. Increasing the efficiency with which the rumen microbiota degrades fiber has been the subject of extensive research for at least the last 100 years. Fiber digestion in the rumen is not optimal, as is supported by the fact that fiber recovered from feces is fermentable. This view is confirmed by the knowledge that mechanical and chemical pretreatments improve fiber degradation, as well as more recent research, which has demonstrated increased fiber digestion by rumen microorganisms when plant lignin composition is modified by genetic manipulation. Rumen microbiologists have sought to improve fiber digestion by genetic and ecological manipulation of rumen fermentation. This has been difficult and a number of constraints have limited progress, including: (a) a lack of reliable transformation systems for major fibrolytic rumen bacteria, (b) a poor understanding of ecological factors that govern persistence of fibrolytic bacteria and fungi in the rumen, (c) a poor understanding of which glycolyl hydrolases need to be manipulated, and (d) a lack of knowledge of the functional genomic framework within which fiber degradation operates. In this review the major fibrolytic organisms are briefly discussed. A more extensive discussion of the enzymes involved in fiber degradation is included. We also discuss the use of plant genetic manipulation, application of free-living lignolytic fungi and the use of exogenous enzymes. Lastly, we will discuss how newer technologies such as genomic and metagenomic approaches can be used to improve our knowledge of the functional genomic framework of plant cell wall degradation in the rumen.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-693
Number of pages31
JournalFEMS Microbiology Reviews
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2003


  • Diversity
  • Functional genome
  • Metagenome
  • Plant cell wall
  • Rumen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Infectious Diseases


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