Microbiome’s role in foal gut health under spotlight

The good environment in foals and how it develops is under investigation by a Canadian researcher who is looking for a “red flag” that may signal why diarrhea can become life-threatening in some foals.

PhD Candidate Jennifer MacNicol, from the Department of Animal Bioscience at the Ontario Agricultural College, is working on a project planned to begin this summer studying mare and foal pairs to gain knowledge of how the horse’s gut environment matures.

The foal’s gut undergoes many changes as it develops rapidly. More and more, we are learning how the colonization of a gut correlates to good health. Exploring the differences in foal microbiomes and how those differences may tie in with overall health has MacNicol excited about the potential advancements the research could yield in the field of equine neonatal care.

Research in genomics is rapidly expanding our knowledge of digestive health but it is not well understood why diarrhea can become life-threatening in some foals while others recover without additional symptoms.

MacNicol, who will be working under the direction of Ontario Veterinary College researcher Dr Luis Arroyo, will study microbial and metabolic data with the aim of learning what biomarkers denote health and which could signal a red flag as the gut becomes colonized. She hopes to compare deviations in health that occur during critical bouts of diarrhea and use the 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 GI microbiome along with the metabolome. With the metabolome, we’re going to be looking at the by-products of microbial activity in the gut of foals and how that begins to mimic or develop so that it’s 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 differ from the mare substantially compared to our healthy set.”

The complex equine microbial environment begins to develop at birth, and very quickly starts to reflect that of the mare and how rapidly a foal adapts so it can consume forage.

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

“The problem is when that does not self-limit and it becomes quite acute and quite drastic. Foals are at an increased risk, just like human babies or any other neonate, because they’re smaller and they can become dehydrated much more easily. Then you get the classic cycle where they’re dehydrated, which makes them more sick, which means they become more dehydrated.”

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

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