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Nutrition, Animal Health

Gut Check: A New Approach to Weanling Gut Health

Novel feed additive beats down bad bacteria

Gut Check: A New Approach to Weanling Gut Health

It may seem beyond our grasp, but making pigs more resistant to disease, while reducing the use of antibiotics, is well within reach. Swine diseases associated with gut bacteria are regarded as the top risk factors for disrupting normal pork production, and this is especially true for weanling pigs. Weanlings often experience gut disruption brought on by enteric diseases (infections occurring in the gastrointestinal system), poor digestion of nutrients or a shortage of alkaline phosphatase (AP), an enzyme in the gut that helps maintain the gut micro-environment.

Gut Reaction

In response to these pig health issues, a research team led by Dr. Ming Fan, University of Guelph, worked on enhancing AP efficiency. That may sound complex, but the end goal was simple: a healthier gut, leading to healthier pigs that would grow faster without the burden of infectious disease. This would also limit the demand for antibiotics, reducing the threat that antimicrobial resistance in the pork sector poses to public health.

In recent years, scientists have discovered the critical role of APs in maintaining gut health, thereby protecting both pigs and people from the toxins that are produced by pathogenic microbes in the gut. These toxins frequently trigger disease, and while swine are akin to humans physiologically, there is a key difference in the effectiveness of APs between the two. In the human body, APs perform like a finely tuned sports car, doing their job smoothly as they coat our cells and guard them from invaders. By contrast, in weanling pigs, their own APs are more like clunkers, often breaking down and failing to thwart these intruders.

Fine Tuning Feeds for Health

In the interests of giving pig APs a “tune up”, researchers sought to develop feed additives. These would take the form of external AP enzymes that are not naturally produced by the body but could be added to pig diets to fortify their gut response. After much study, scientists created an enzyme that shows great potential in advancing the pig gut micro-environment and helping the animal to resist disease. 

Of course, as with most great discoveries, there is still one large mountain to climb before it leads to black ink for industry: red tape. Because the enzyme is a microbial product, it is highly regulated. Prior to making it available for use by producers, much data is needed to ensure the product is safe, effective and environmentally friendly. As part of the registration process, the federal government must also confirm that its biological working mechanisms are clearly revealed as a novel microbial product, since nobody else has developed and commercialized a similar product in the past.

From Health to Wealth

Once the team secures government approval, the newly developed enzyme could become a valuable new tool for industry. The product could support faster and more efficient growth for pigs, while precluding the need for antibiotics to promote health. Though primarily targeting weanling pigs, as swine is more vulnerable when younger, this enzyme may also aid feeder pigs and sows in a similar manner.

Though antibiotics have been a powerful weapon for decades in the fight against human and animal diseases, the landscape has clearly shifted. Today, the use of such drugs is under increasing scrutiny in the eyes of the public and faces growing concerns about antimicrobial resistance. These circumstances enhance the appeal of feed additives, like AP enzymes that strengthen natural immune defenses while developing treatments that balance the health of people, animals and the environment.

Building a Path from Lab to Barn

Against that backdrop, a new weapon was required to aid pigs and producers, and finding it was the ultimate team effort. Scientists relied on financial support from industry partners like Ontario Pork, as well as cluster funding from research bodies including Swine Innovation Porc (SIP) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Apart from the dollars, this “made in Canada” solution relied heavily on lab technology at the University of Guelph and the brain power of researchers, associates and students.  

In the journey from lab to barn, however, several steps remain. Now that the essential research and efficacy testing is complete, the team must work on technology transfer to universities, businesses and governments. This process helps ensure that the scientific and technological developments from the project are available to a wider range of users, who can then help develop them further. From there, it is on to intellectual property protection, government approval and, ideally, commercialization of the product.

As a course of further study, scientists hope to explore the effects on soil fertility of applying manure from pigs who consume this enzyme. They also want to look more closely at the possible benefits of the enzyme in sow diets.


Project Title:  Development of Novel Feed Additives to Replace Antibiotics and Promote Pig Gut Health

Lead(s)/Co-Lead(s): Dr.  Ming Fan (University of Guelph)

Budget: $329 125

Research Methods

Through conducting this project, researchers have obtained efficacy studies data that must be reviewed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) prior to approval of the AP enzyme.

They are also working on supporting documentation for a staged consultation process with the CFIA.

Once they obtain registration and approval for the AP enzyme as a novel microbial gut modifier feed additive for the Canadian feed industry for pigs, this may eventually lead to feed applications to other sectors of livestock production.

Upon submission for CFIA registration and approval, their AP enzyme data will be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publishing into the public domain. They anticipate that this process will conclude by early next year.

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