Wallaby milk to improve dairy products

Examining the milk and lactation behaviour of Australia’s Tammar wallaby has led to identification of 30 micro-components in cows milk by researchers at the Dairy Cooperative Research Centre which will speed development of a range of high-value products.

The micro-components, known as bioactives,  are undergoing evaluation to determine if they have useful health-giving properties for humans and animals.

Australian scientists based at the Dairy CRC have been researching the milk and lactation behaviour of wallabies to speed genetic discovery for improved lactation performance in the dairy cow; and to identify the valuable bioactives. 

Potential new products resulting from the research include infant formulas, oral healthcare products, food additives, nutraceuticals and animal feed supplements.

Why milk wallabies? After a short pregnancy the Tammar wallaby gives birth to a tiny, embryo-like young. In most mammals, growth occurs mainly in the womb with nutrients delivered via the placenta. In the wallaby however, all the factors required for growth and development of the young (known as a joey) are delivered via the mother’s milk.

“The genes controlling production of these bioactives have equivalents in the dairy cow, so similar components are present in cows milk,” said Project leader Dr Kevin Nicholas from the University of Melbourne.

“Our research has demonstrated that this is the case, and the bioactives are now being assessed for functionality.”

The composition of the wallaby milk and the rate at which it is produced changes progressively over the lactation cycle to meet the changing needs of the developing joey before weaning.  In particular, protein content increases up to five-fold during the lactation cycle. Focussing on how the large increases in milk proteins are controlled by genes is of interest to researchers.

Wallabies also have a unique ability to suckle two young at different stages of development simultaneously on different teats – with the milk composition tailored to the differing needs of each individual joey. This process is controlled by genes, thereby providing scientists with an excellent mechanism to see which genes control which functions in the mammary gland.

This project, known as “Mining Australian Biodiversity”, has arisen from the growth goals of the Australian dairy industry. A better understanding of dairy genetics and development of high-value products using bioactives will increase profits for dairy farmers, processors and manufacturers.

The project was jointly funded by the Dairy CRC and the Geoffrey Gardiner Dairy Foundation. Evaluation of further functionality is being supported by Dairy Australia and the Victorian Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.