Evidence of a role for plant proteases in the degradation of herbage proteins in the rumen of grazing cattle.
ABSTRACT Protein breakdown in the rumen is generally regarded as a two-stage process in which proteases produced by rumen microorganisms cleave plant protein into peptides and amino acids. However, many of the fiber-degrading cellulolytic species in the rumen are not in fact proteolytic, and the proteolytic activity of the entire rumen microbial population is only moderate when compared to the gastric and pancreatic secretions in the abomasum. Moreover, plant cell walls remain largely intact after initial chewing (particularly in cattle), presenting a physical barrier that must be breached prior to their effective colonization. The present study considers the hypothesis that the plant enzymes are at least partly responsible for herbage protein degradation in grazing ruminants. Ryegrass, red clover, white clover, and bird's-foot trefoil were incubated in the presence and absence of rumen microorganisms. The production of volatile fatty acids indicated the level of microbial activity, whereas the relative disappearance of the large subunit of ribulose 1,5 bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco LSU) indicated proteolytic activity. In all incubations, the relative abundance of the Rubisco LSU decreased as the incubation progressed. When rumen microorganisms were absent, low molecular weight peptides (below 20 kDa) accumulated as the incubation progressed. This accumulation was not observed in the presence of rumen microorganisms. Therefore we suggest that the intrinsic plant proteases contribute to the initial stages of proteolysis of grazed herbage.