On a cellular level, it's something like the line of scrimmage on a football field. A hormone rushes toward an embryo, but for completion to occur - in this case a pregnancy in a cow - the hormone must be blocked.
The blocker is a fatty acid found in fish.
Serving as coach, so to speak, in this biological blend of hooves and fins is a biology professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Pat Burns hopes his latest research not only improves bovine fertility - which could save millions for U.S. beef and milk producers - but also yields applications to human fertility and health.
He recently won a $98,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a two-year study.
Burns said lab work done at UNC and other university studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, absorbed into the tissues of the cow, improved fertility rates 10 to 20 percent. They reduce the secretion of the hormone prostaglandin in reproductive tissues of pregnant cows, thereby improving the likelihood of a full-term pregnancy.
Currently, about 30-40 percent of early-term pregnancies are lost when signals get crossed inside the cow.
"If she's not pregnant, that hormone is released and that's what's going to allow her to come around for another opportunity of fertilization," Burns said. "If she's pregnant, the embryo must block that hormone. (Often) what happens is there's a miscommunication between an embryo and the mother when that prostaglandin is released, even though there's an embryo there. It's a spontaneous abortion."
And those lost pregnancies, when a cow's regular heat cycle is 21 days, add up to expenses.
"A 10 percent improvement (in fertility rates) could save potentially millions of dollars in lost meat and milk production," Burns said. "If it takes you 60 days to get her pregnant, that's a lot of production loss. So what we're trying to do is get them pregnant as early as possible."
Nicky White, a first-year biology graduate student at UNC, is intrigued by the potential - for both animals and humans - of the study. She is helping feed the fish oil meal, made from menhaden (a type of herring), to cows at the Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A couple of CSU scientists are collaborating on the study.
After the 60 days, allowing the oils to be incorporated into the cows' reproductive systems, the tissues will be examined for fish oil effects.
There will be a control group and a treated group of animals, each with 16 cows.
"There's so many aspects" to the research, White said. "I think that's what makes it really fun and interesting. We're not just sitting in the lab. We have our actual animals that we're experimenting on."
Burns has spent much of his career working on ways to ensure that the "critical window" in animal reproduction yields a healthy, growing embryo. He's worked mostly with cattle, but also sheep.
While omega-3 fatty acids are well-known to reduce heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis and some cancers, "we still don't know a lot of the mechanisms of how fish oil fatty acids work, actually," Burns said. Among the oils' benefits is a reduction in side effects for treatment of conditions like arthritis.
Large animals have always been an interest for Burns, who got his bachelor's in animal science at the University of West Virginia, and earned a doctorate in cellular molecular biology at Clemson University and performed post-doctorate work at the University of Kentucky.
He has previously received more than $500,000 in external grants and published
25 peer-reviewed journal articles on reproductive biology.
Burns said it took three separate submissions to get this latest grant application approved by the USDA. As usual, it wasn't easy, especially because money is hard to come by in the down economy.
"I generated a lot of preliminary data to support that work - two or three years of preliminary data demonstrating that this will work," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Greeley Tribune