Rumen epithelial tissue plays an important role in nutrient absorption and rumen health. However, whether forage quality and particle size impact the rumen epithelial morphology is unclear. The current study was conducted to elucidate the effects of forage quality and forage particle size on rumen epithelial morphology and to identify potential underlying molecular mechanisms by analyzing the transcriptome of the rumen epithelium (RE). To achieve these objectives, 18 mid-lactation dairy cows were allocated to three groups (6 cows per group), and were fed with one of three different forage-based diets, alfalfa hay (AH), corn stover (CS), and rice straw (RS) for 14 weeks, respectively. Ruminal volatile fatty acids (VFAs) and epithelial thickness were determined, and RNA-sequencing was conducted to identify the transcriptomic changes of rumen epithelial under different forage-based diets.
The RS diet exhibited greater particle size but low quality, the AH diet was high nutritional value but small particle size, and CS diet was low quality and small particle size. The ruminal total VFA concentration was greater in AH compared with those in CS or RS. The width of the rumen papillae was greater in RS-fed cows than in cows fed AH or CS. In total, 31, 40, and 28 differentially expressed (DE, fold change > 2, FDR < 0.05) genes were identified via pair-wise comparisons including AH vs. CS, AH vs. RS, and RS vs. CS, respectively. Functional classification analysis of DE genes revealed dynamic changes in ion binding (such as DSG1) between AH and CS, proliferation and apoptotic processes (such as BAG3, HLA-DQA1, and UGT2B17) and complement activation (such as C7) between AH or RS and CS. The expression of HLA-DQA1 was down-regulated in RS compared with AH and CS, and the expression of UGT2B17 was down-regulated in RS compared with CS, with positive (R = 0.94) and negative (R = -0.96) correlation with the width of rumen epithelial papillae (P < 0.05), respectively.
Our results suggest that both nutrients (VFAs) and particle sizes can alter expression of genes involved in cell proliferation/apoptosis process and complement complex. Our results suggest that particle size may be more important in regulating rumen epithelial morphology when animals are fed with low-quality forage diets and the identified DE genes may affect the RE nutrient absorption or morphology of RE. Our findings provide insights into the effects of the dietary particle size in the future management of dairy cow feeding, that when cows were fed with low-quality forage (such as rice straw), smaller particle size may be beneficial for nutrients absorption and milk production.