The University of Utah biologists have discovered that woodrats lose their ability to feed on toxic creosote bushes after their gut microbes get destructed by antibiotics. The species is native to western North American deserts.
Toxic chemicals are produced by plants in a bid to stay safe from herbivores. As most mammals are herbivores, they need to have a mechanism that ensures their protection from toxic chemicals from the plants they eat each day.
The new study has corroborated the long-held belief that bacteria in the gut, and not just liver enzymes, play a big role in allowing herbivores to consume toxic plants. After eating microbe-filled fecal transplants, woodrats from northern Utah were able to eat toxic plants.
Kevin Kohl, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, said the study, published in the journal Ecology Letters on Monday, has provided strong evidence that herbivores’ ability to eat toxic plants is attributable to bacteria in the gut.
“For decades, scientists have thought that gut microbes or gut bacteria might help mammals eat poisonous plants, but there really hasn’t been a thorough test of that idea. We conducted a series of experiments to show this was the case”, said Kohl.
The National Science Foundation provided funds for the study, which was conducted to determine the potential of woodrats or packrats from different regions of the state to consume Creosote, a toxic shrub found in southern Utah.
Kohl said Creosote is normally eaten by rats from St. George. After transplanting their fecal matter into rats from the north, ability to digest the Creosote toxins improved significantly.
Kohl said fecal transplant is not a new concept in the medical field as enemas are often used to transfer fecal matter from one person to another.