RoboHog: developing an in vitro gut model system of the porcine hindgut

Just like humans, pigs host a wide variety of microbes that inhabit the body and are essential for host health. The microbial communities (collectively known as the microbiota) that reside in the digestive tract play a vital role in metabolising food to provide essential nutrients, protecting against pathogens, and maintaining the wellbeing of the digestive tract. Careful selection of feed and supplements can maximise the beneficial effects of the gut microbiota for sustainable livestock performance, improved wellbeing, lowering feed costs, and reducing environmental impact.

Studies to identify optimum feed conditions largely takes place in the animals themselves, which limits the scope and size of these studies. If we were able to carry out laboratory-based studies this would allow a much broader set of experiments to be carried out, without the ethical concerns associated with using animals in this way. Working with the National Pig Centre and key industrial partners, we will demonstrate the potential for RoboHog to bridge this gap.

RoboHog consists of 3 zones, each with a different set of conditions that are controlled to represent the pig gut. The first zone is fed with a mimic of feed, products from this trickle into the second and then the third zone - each region develops its own distinct microbial population, just as a large intestine would within a pig. Our project will demonstrate the power of RoboHog through two studies. The first study will consider the impact of supplements and nutrient regimes on the health benefits conferred by the microbiota. We will feed RoboHog different feed compositions and monitor microbial populations and other indicators of nutritional benefit.

This study will run in parallel to one taking place using pigs at the National Pig Centre so that we can learn how to relate findings in one to another. The second study will demonstrate how the model can capture the impact of pathogens on the gut health and to test therapies against these pathogens. We will challenge the gut model with a pathogen, such as Salmonella, and show how microbes can be manipulated to affect disease outcome.

This could then be used as a model to research how bio-therapeutics could be used to influence pig health. Throughout the project, we will work with industry partners to ensure the relevance of our studies and to explore how such technologies can be used more widely to support sustainable farming practices.

We will run knowledge transfer events to showcase both the technology and the findings and, by working with the University of Leeds Research Innovations Services, we will establish ways for researchers/industry to access this technology allowing them to run their own studies. This will reduce the dependency on using animals in feed trials and pathogen investigations, whilst offering greater flexibility in establishing more sustainable farming practices.


As an interdisciplinary research project, RoboHog has the potential to bring new approaches to livestock research. This will contribute to knowledge in both health, engineering and the animal sciences - it bridges disciplines and research fields by applying cutting edge techniques to clinical animal studies.

Within the area of livestock this can be used to address areas of research cutting across animal nutrition, animal health, animal welfare, animal production, veterinary epidemiology, precision nutrition, livestock production and sustainable agriculture. The provision of our benchtop model will provide greater opportunities to study the porcine microbiome, motivating new researchers and innovation in this area.

This will further the knowledge on the pig microbiome and thus will improve pig health while reducing research costs. The model could also provide essential data to supplement and increase the robustness of commercial on-farm pig trials, bringing a huge benefit to the national and global pig industry, whilst simultaneously reducing and refining the number of animals used in trials. This will have a positive impact on the productivity and profitability for livestock farmers.

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