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A New Glue...From Inside Cow Bellies?

If you take a drive through the country, you might see a herd of cows munching on grass and shrubs. Unlike us, they can eat and digest tough, fibrous plants. They can do this, in part, because of bacteria that live in their bellies.

Those bacteria, like some that live in your own stomach, are very helpful. They feed on chewed-up food once it makes its way down into the cow’s gut. This helps grind the plant chunks into even smaller pieces so the cows can get the most nutrients from their food.

Paul Weimer studies these bacteria. He’s a microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Madison, Wisconsin.  His job is to study the tiny critters that hang out in cow bellies. Why?  Because he wants to be sure the cows are healthy. 

He also wants to learn about them because they help turn what the dairy cows eat into the nourishing milk that they produce—and that we drink!

Stick to It!

One day Dr. Weimer was watching some bacteria under a microscope.  They were turning plant chunks into food for themselves and the cow in which they lived.  He was impressed with how tightly the bacteria stuck to the plant material, and that gave him an interesting idea: "If the bacteria are so good at sticking to plant materials, wouldn’t they be good at sticking to other similar things, like wood? Could they be used to make a wood glue?"
Do you know why these little bacteria are so good at attaching themselves to things?
Dr. Weimer explains, “They have an outer slime layer that allows them to cling to a surface. In my laboratory, they stick so tightly to plant material, or cellulose, I can’t get them off without destroying them.”

The bacteria must not want anyone else to get to their food. 

Other bacteria are good clingers too. Some can stick to our teeth and cause cavities if we don’t brush them off.  Eeeww!!

It might sound really weird to you, but finding bacteria that can form a glue is a great discovery.  It could help replace some of the smelly and expensive chemicals that are used right now to make wood products. That could help the environment.

Someday, maybe your kitchen table will be held together with tiny, helpful, harmless bacteria….Who knows?!

By Erin Peabody, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff


The Four Stomach Chambers (as shown and defined on the animation page).

Rumen: The rumen is where food makes its first stop in the cow's four-chambered stomach. Ruminococcus albus and other microbes in the rumen help break down plant fibers the cow has eaten. Unlike the animation, real-life cows regurgitate (vomit) food from the rumen to their mouths for re-chewing. "Feed typically spends 15 to 48 hours in the rumen before moving on," notes Weimer. Oh, and the rumen can hold 40 to 50 gallons (think milk jugs) of food!

Reticulum: The reticulum is a pouch-like chamber towards the front of the stomach that is somewhat open to the rumen. Resembling a honeycomb inside, the reticulum is also known as the "hardware stomach." That's because heavy objects that the cow has swallowed, such as fencing scraps, usually collect there.

Omasum: The omasum is the third of the four stomach chambers. The page-like tissues inside act as a kind of filter whose job includes absorbing water, potassium, and other substances from partly digested food that has been passed along by the reticulum.

Abomasum: The abomasum is the last of the four chambers. It is known as the "true stomach" because it works like that of a human or pig, for example. The environment of the abomasum is very acidic. This helps substances called enzymes break down proteins into important building blocks called amino acids.

Small intestine: The small intestine is a tube-like section of the digestive tract that connects the stomach to the large intestine. It's the last stop where nutrients from digested food are taken up, or absorbed, by the cow's body.

Large intestine: The large intestine is a part of the digestive tract that comes after the small intestine. Divided into three sections (the cecum, colon, and rectum), the large intestine is mainly responsible for removing water and forming feces. This waste material leaves the cow through an opening called the anus, and forms a "cow pattie" upon hitting the ground.

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