Beef cattle that respond differently to fescue toxicosis have distinct gastrointestinal tract microbiota

PLoS One. 2020 Jul 23;15(7):e0229192. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229192. eCollection 2020.


Tall fescue (Lolium arundinaceum) is a widely used forage grass which shares a symbiosis with the endophytic fungus Epichloë coenophiala. The endophyte produces an alkaloid toxin that provides herbivory, heat and drought resistance to the grass, but can cause fescue toxicosis in grazing livestock. Fescue toxicosis can lead to reduced weight gain and milk yields resulting in significant losses to the livestock industry. The objective of this study was to identify bacterial and fungal communities associated with fescue toxicosis tolerance. In this trial, 149 Angus cows across two farms were continuously exposed to toxic, endophyte-infected, fescue for a total of 13 weeks. Of those 149 cows, 40 were classified into either high (HT) or low (LT) tolerance groups according to their growth performance (weight gain). 20 HT and 20 LT cattle balanced by farm were selected for amplicon sequencing to compare the fecal microbiota of the two tolerance groups. This study reveals significantly (q<0.05) different bacterial and fungal microbiota between HT and LT cattle, and indicates that fungal phylotypes may be important for an animal's response to fescue toxicosis: We found that fungal phylotypes affiliating to the Neocallimastigaceae, which are known to be important fiber-degrading fungi, were consistently more abundant in the HT cattle. Whereas fungal phylotypes related to the genus Thelebolus were more abundant in the LT cattle. This study also found more pronounced shifts in the microbiota in animals receiving higher amounts of the toxin. We identified fungal phylotypes which were consistently more abundant either in HT or LT cattle and may thus be associated with the respective animal's response to fescue toxicosis. Our results thus suggest that some fungal phylotypes might be involved in mitigating fescue toxicosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ascomycota / isolation & purification
  • Ascomycota / metabolism
  • Cattle
  • Discriminant Analysis
  • Epichloe / metabolism*
  • Ergot Alkaloids / analysis
  • Ergot Alkaloids / toxicity
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome* / drug effects
  • Lolium / microbiology*
  • Neocallimastigales / isolation & purification
  • Neocallimastigales / metabolism
  • Symbiosis
  • Toxins, Biological / analysis
  • Toxins, Biological / toxicity


  • Ergot Alkaloids
  • Toxins, Biological

Grant support

This work was supported by North Carolina Cattlemen’s association and North Carolina Agricultural foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.