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Koalas could get FAECES transplants to help them survive

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Koalas could get FAECES transplants to help the marsupials eat a wider variety of food and survive habitat loss

  • Koalas only eat a specific type of eucalyptus plant found in the native Australia  
  • Tablets made from the microorganisms of wild koala faecal matter were made 
  • These faecal transplants allowed koalas to eat another plant called messmate 
  • It could provide a crucial adaptation which allows the animals to adapt to increasing habitat loss  

Faeces transplants could help save koalas from extinction as they continue to struggle with increasing habitat loss. 

The goal of the transplants is to boost the microbiome of the marsupials and allow them to eat a slightly wider range of food than the one specific type of eucalyptus. 

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia analysed and altered the internal bacteria of a koalas’ guts. 

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Helping hand: Faeces transplants could help save koalas from extinction as they continue to struggle with increasing habitat loss

Helping hand: Faeces transplants could help save koalas from extinction as they continue to struggle with increasing habitat loss

Conservationists in Australia were devastated when koala numbers plummeted in 2013 as many of the animals starved to death.   

Dr Michaela Blyton began researching ways to save the popular animals following this alarming decline.  

‘In 2013 the koala population reached very high densities, leading them to defoliate their preferred food tree species, manna gum,’ Dr Blyton said.

‘This led to 70 per cent mortality due to starvation, which was very distressing.’

The animals starved to death instead of adapting and eating a different species, known as messmate. 

‘What was interesting was that even though the koalas were starving, they generally didn’t start feeding on a less preferred tree species, messmate, despite the fact that some koalas feed exclusively on messmate.

‘This led me and colleague Dr Ben Moore at Western Sydney University to wonder if the microbes present in koalas’ guts – their microbiomes – were limiting which species they could eat, and if we could allow them to expand their diet with faecal inoculations.’

Process: Faecal samples from wild koalas who ate messmate were used to create acid-resistant capsules filled with the precise microorganisms essential in the process

Process: Faecal samples from wild koalas who ate messmate were used to create acid-resistant capsules filled with the precise microorganisms essential in the process

WHAT IS PUTTING KOALAS AT RISK OF EXTINCTION?  

Koala populations along Australia’s east coast have been declining due to a culmination of various factors. 

Habitat loss from deforestation, diseases such as chlamydia, attacks from predators, fire and road collisions are all contributing to their decline. 

It was previously thought they only got hydration from leaves but a revolutionary new study has found they are actually able, and willing, to drink from standing water.

Koalas can’t simply eat more leaves to compensate for reduced water content in their favourite food because they are limited by how much they can devour by leaf toxins.

They are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red list which tracks at-risk animals. 

The team caught wild koalas that only ate manna gum and kept them in temporary captivity at the Cape Otway Conservation Ecology Centre.

Faecal samples from wild koalas who ate messmate were used to create acid-resistant capsules filled with the precise microorganisms essential in the process. 

These were given to other koalas as inoculations to see how it affected their eating habits. 

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Assessment over a 18-day stretch allowed them to be compared to a normal, control group. 

The researchers found that the faecal inoculations changed the koalas’ microbiomes, allowing them to eat messmate.

‘This could affect all aspects of their ecology including nutrition, habitat selection and resource use,’ Dr Blyton said.

‘Koalas may naturally have trouble adapting to new diets when their usual food trees become over browsed or after being moved to a new location.

‘This study provides a proof of concept for the use of encapsulated faecal material to successfully introduce and establish new microbes in koalas’ guts.

‘In future, capsules could be used to adjust koalas’ microbiomes prior to moving them to safer or more abundant environments, and as probiotics during and after antibiotic treatment.’

WHAT IS A FAECAL MICROBIOTA TRANSPLANT? THE BIZARRE PROCEDURE THAT REBALANCES BACTERIA IN THE STOMACH

Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient.

WHAT CAN IT TREAT? 

It is most commonly used to treat recurring C. difficile infection – spread by bacterial spores found within faeces. It is 90 per cent effective.

It can also be used to treat gastrointestinal conditions such as colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation – but success rates are much lower. 

Recent studies have delved into the benefits of treating conditions linked to a poor balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut, such as autism. 

Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient

Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient

FMT can replenish bacterial balance as it acts like a probiotic, with samples of faeces often containing up to 1,000 different species of bacteria.  

HOW IS IT PERFORMED?

The transplant is done via tubes – inserted into the nostril, down the throat and into the stomach – or directly into the colon.

However, the faecal sample can also be transplanted through enemas or pills containing freeze-dried material.

IS IT SAFE?

There have been reports of patients showing unexpected weight gain after treatment, bouts of vomiting and even abdominal pain.

However, the long-term safety and effectiveness of FMT is relatively unknown, and researchers have called for more studies to determine the risks. 

 



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