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Nutr Res Rev. 2009 Dec;22(2):204-19. doi: 10.1017/S0954422409990163.

The effect and mode of action of saponins on the microbial populations and fermentation in the rumen and ruminant production.

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Department of Animal Nutrition, West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences, Belgachia, Kolkata, India.


The growing public concerns over chemical residues in animal-derived foods and threats of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have renewed interest in exploring safer alternatives to chemical feed additives in ruminant livestock. Various bioactive phytochemicals including saponins appear to be potential 'natural' alternatives to 'chemical' additives in modulating rumen fermentation favourably and animal performance. Saponins are a diverse group of glycosides present in many families of plants. The primary effect of saponins in the rumen appears to be to inhibit the protozoa (defaunation), which might increase the efficiency of microbial protein synthesis and protein flow to the duodenum. Furthermore, saponins may decrease methane production via defaunation and/or directly by decreasing the activities (i.e. rate of methanogenesis or expression of methane-producing genes) and numbers of methanogens. Saponins may also selectively affect specific rumen bacteria and fungi, which may alter the rumen metabolism beneficially or adversely. The ammonia-adsorption and modulation of digesta passage in the rumen by saponins have also been implicated in altering rumen metabolism, but their physiological responses are likely to be negligible compared with microbiological effects. The effects of saponins on rumen fermentation have not been found to be consistent. These discrepancies appear to be related to the chemical structure and dosage of saponins, diet composition, microbial community and adaptation of microbiota to saponins. There is need for systematic research based on chemical structures of saponins, nutrient composition of diets and their effects on rumen microbial ecosystem to obtain consistent results. The present paper reviews and discusses the effects and mode of action of saponins on microbial community and fermentation in the rumen, and ruminant performance.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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