The role of the microbiome in foal gut health in the spotlight

The intestinal environment of foals and its development is being investigated by a Canadian researcher who is looking for a ‘red flag’ that could indicate why diarrhea can become fatal in some foals.

Doctoral candidate Jennifer MacNicol, from the Department of Animal Biosciences at the Ontario Agricultural College, is working on a project slated to begin this summer studying mare and foal pairs to gain insight into how the the horse’s intestinal environment matures.

The foal’s intestine undergoes many changes as it develops rapidly. More and more, we are learning how colonization of a gut is correlated with good health. Exploring the differences between foal microbiomes and how these differences may relate to overall health has MacNicol excited about the potential advances that research could bring to the field of equine neonatal care.

Genomics research is rapidly expanding our knowledge of digestive health, but it is unclear why diarrhea can become fatal in some foals while others recover without additional symptoms.

MacNicol, who will work under Ontario Veterinary College researcher Dr. Luis Arroyo, will study microbial and metabolic data with the goal of learning which biomarkers denote health and which could signal a red flag when the intestine is colonized. She hopes to compare the health discrepancies that occur during critical episodes of diarrhea and use understanding of gut microbial developments in foals to move towards personalized treatments and therapeutics.

“What we want to look at is the development of the gastrointestinal microbiome with the metabolome. With the metabolome, we’re going to look at the by-products of microbial activity in the gut of foals and how that starts to mimic or develop to be similar to that of the mare,” MacNicol said.

“Then what we want to see in our subset (foals that develop diarrhea) is whether that microbiome or the metabolome differs significantly in the mare compared to our healthy set.”

The complex equine microbial environment begins to develop at birth and very quickly begins to reflect that of the mare and how quickly a foal adapts to be able to consume forage.

“There is often transient, self-limiting diarrhea in healthy foals,” MacNicol said.

“The problem is when it doesn’t self-limit and it becomes quite acute and quite drastic. Foals are at increased risk, as are human babies or any other newborns, because they are smaller and can get dehydrated a lot easier.Then you get the classic cycle where they get dehydrated, which makes them sicker, which means they get more dehydrated.

It is hoped that the early identification of problems through biomarkers will lead to new developments in the treatment of digestive problems in foals.

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