Researchers are investigating the genetic makeup of a seaweed variety that can not only eliminate livestock methane emissions, but potentially increase growth by up to 20 per cent.
During a CSIRO led study five years ago the native Australian species known as Asparagopsis was found to completely reduce any methane production from sheep and cattle when they were fed small amounts.
Now researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland have teamed up with Japan collaborators to determine the key genes in the seaweed to speed up future growing opportunities.
By doing so, associate professor of the school of science and engineering, Dr Nick Paul, along with associate professor Dr Scott Cummins, hope the seaweed could be supplied in large amounts to livestock in the next five to 10 years.
"There are lots of different seaweeds that we eat every day like Nori and the like, but none of these ones have worked to the same extent," Dr Paul said.
"It's a really special seaweed and we have to spend a bit of time now in investing and understanding it.
"Once we have the genetic basis and work out what's controlling the production of the compound in the seaweed causing the methane reduction, then that gives us a really big leg up and then we can look at all the other things around how to make it grow faster and the like.
"Think of 100 odd years of crop breeding and production that we have done on land, and we want to squeeze that into a few years with seaweed and the only way to do that is with some fancy genomic technology, not GMO, just purely understanding the compound and breeding around that."
More than 20 million tonnes of seaweed is produced around the world every year but the industry has failed to take off in Australia.
The study will determine if sea-based cultures or land-based cultures are the best method of production.
"In the sea it's less costly but less control but on land you get more control but you have to pay for all the other extra bits of production," Dr Paul said.
The methane reduction occurs from a natural chemical produced by the seaweed in its own defence to stop bacteria settling on its surface and stop fish from eating it.
Due to the chemical being of such a high concentration, cattle only require a supplementation of less than one per cent.
Early research findings have also indicated positive growth impacts to cattle.
Dr Paul said the methane reducing seaweed was a growth stimulate and he anticipated producers could turn a steer off up to a year earlier.
"There is a study that's been the longest running one that is just about to finish in California at the moment where they are doing a long term study with growth and the early results are promising," he said.
"It could produce a 20 per cent increase in growth. The theory behind that is the methane is lost energy. If you can lock out the methane than that energy that is otherwise disappearing is actually able to be used for production."
Dr Paul expected that in the short term utilising the seaweed supplement in feedlots could have a big impact to the industry.
"Seaweed does grow quickly but because you are starting from scratch you have to produce enough to get the whole industry going so you can get normal growth and sustainably supply it," he said.
"I'm hoping that some time in the next five to 10 years we will be having enough area of seaweed culture to be able to provide a decent chunk of supply for livestock.
"There is a bit of science to be done. There is a lot of interest so hopefully we can ride that wave and get the investment to get it started."