Nitrogen isotopic fractionation as a biomarker for nitrogen use efficiency in ruminants: a meta analysis
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Animal proteins are naturally 15N enriched relative to the diet and the extent of this difference (Δ15N animal-diet or N isotopic fractionation) has been correlated to N use efficiency (NUE; nitrogen gain or milk N yield/N intake) in some recent ruminant studies. The present study used meta-analysis to investigate whether Δ15N animal-diet can be used as a predictor of NUE across a range of dietary conditions, particularly at the level of between-animal variation. An additional objective was to identify variables related to N partitioning explaining the link between NUE and Δ15Nanimal-diet. Individual values from 8 publications reporting both NUE and Δ15N animal-diet for domestic ruminants were used to create a database comprising 11 experimental studies, 41 treatments and individual animal values for NUE (n = 226) and Δ15N animal-diet (n = 291). Data were analyzed by mixed-effect regression analysis taking into account experimental factors as random effects on both the intercept and slope of the model. Diets were characterized according to the INRA feeding system in terms of N utilization at the rumen, digestive and metabolic levels. These variables were used in a Partial Least Squares regression analysis to predict separately NUE and Δ15Nanimal-diet variation, with the objective of identifying common variables linking NUE and Δ15N animal-diet. For individuals reared under similar conditions (within-study) and at the same time (within-period), the variance of NUE and Δ15N animal-diet not explained by dietary treatments (i.e. between-animal variation plus experimental error) was 35% and 55% respectively. Mixed-effect regression analysis conducted with treatment means showed that Δ15N animal-diet was significantly and negatively correlated to NUE variation across diets (NUE = 0.415 -0.055×Δ15N animal-diet). When using individual values and taking into account the random effects of study, period and diet, the relationship was also significant (NUE = 0.358 -0.035×Δ15N animal-diet). However, there may be a biased prediction for animals close to zero, or in negative, N balance. When using a novel statistical approach, attempting to regress between-animal variation in NUE on between-animal variation in Δ15N animal-diet (without the influence of experimental factors), the negative relationship was still significant, highlighting the ability of Δ15N animal-diet to capture individual variability. Among the studied variables related to N utilization, those concerning N efficiency use at the metabolic level contributed most to predict both Δ15N animal-diet and NUE variation, with rumen fermentation and digestion contributing to a lesser extent. This study confirmed that on average Δ15N animal-diet can predict NUE variation across diets and across individuals reared under similar conditions.
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