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Lab Overview

The animal production lab is focused on the study and optimization of animal production systems, in order to increase animal/herd productivity and optimize feeding to improve animal product quality. Ruminants and equines have been our major target species, but our activities include also other farm animals and poultry species. Determinants of meat and milk quality have been our main interest in ruminants, while in equines the adequate development of foals has been the main objective.

The relationships between rumen microbial metabolism and product quality of ruminants have been one of our major research interests. Lipids of ruminants’ edible products contain relatively high proportions of saturated and trans fatty acids due to the extensive biohydrogenation (BH) of unsaturated fatty acids carried out by the rumen microbiota. We have been deeply involved in the development of practical production strategies to modulate the biohydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids that occurs in the rumen in order to improve the fatty acid composition of meat and milk. However, the biology and chemistry of rumen biohydrogenation are still poorly understood and undesirable changes of the usual biohydrogenation pathways can occur in intensively fed ruminants, leading to strong accumulation of trans-10 18:1 in the tissues. Thus, most of our recent efforts have been directed to elucidation the trans-10 shifted biohydrogenation pathways and of the main production and dietary factors that determine its occurrence in intensively finished ruminants.

The valorization of edible animal products has been pursued by searching objective tools to demonstrate their association to differentiated and/or certified production systems and by modulation of animal metabolism via animal nutrition. Also, we have been evaluating consumer’s preferences regarding objective and subjective animal product quality traits and incorporating that knowledge on the optimization of production systems.

Our lab combines the advanced expertise in lipid metabolism and on advanced lipid analytical techniques with expertise on the animal production systems, management, and nutrition.

With equine production, our main research interests are focused on the study of growth and development of the foal, body condition changes and metabolic indicators in the broodmare during the production cycle, and the relationship between foals’ growth patterns and bone quality. We aimed also to investigate the use of new feed materials rich in essential nutrients, which may have beneficial impacts at the different metabolic process.

Highlights in the period


During the last 5 years, our lab achieved a consolidated international position in the area of ruminant animals’ lipid metabolism and its resulting impacts on meat quality. Understanding the complexity of the ruminal lipid metabolism provides a solid base to regulate meat and milk lipid composition by the host animal. We have identified novel biohydrogenation intermediates and microbial lipids refined the biohydrogenation pathways for several unsaturated fatty acids and explored the modulatory effects of tannins on biohydrogenation.

The main recent research highlights of the lab are:

  • Update and improvement the analytical techniques to study the rumen microbial plasmalogen lipids.
  • Identification for the first time in ruminants digestive contents and tissues the t10,c15-18:2 and its establishment as the missing biohydrogenation intermediate of the postulated trans-10 shifted pathways of the ruminal biohydrogenation of linolenic acid.
  • Identification for the first time of the occurrence of conjugated 22:6 isomers during the initial steps of docosapentaenoic acid (DHA) ruminal biohydrogenation.
  • Establishment of the metabolization of ricinoleic acid on lactating ruminants.
  • Advances in the understanding of the occurrence of the trans-10 shifted biohydrogenation, including the large individual variability and genotype influences.
  • Identification for the first time of long branched chain fatty acids as constituents of the rock rose (Cistus ladanifer) shrub.
  • Establishment of the growth curves of Lusitano foals


Selected Publications

Alves, S.P., Santos-Silva J., Cabrita A.R.J., Fonseca, A.J.M., Bessa, R.J.B. 2013. Detailed dimethylacetal and fatty acid composition of rumen content from lambs fed lucerne or concentrate supplemented with soybean oil. PLoS ONE  8(3):e58386.

This paper provides, probably, the most detailed characterization of fatty acid and of dimethyl acetals (DMA) found in rumen digesta and thus it is demonstrative of our analytical expertise. This degree of detail allowed to establish a new paradigm on rumen digesta lipid analysis, particularly regarding the DMA profile.

Alves, S.P., Bessa, R.J.B. 2014. The trans-10,cis-15 18:2: a missing intermediate of trans-10 shifted rumen biohydrogenation pathway? Lipids 49:527-541.

In 1999, Dale Bauman team in Cornell postulated the occurrence of an altered ruminal biohydrogenation pathway of C18 PUFA (the trans-10 shift) associated with concentrate feeding, where 10t-18:1 accumulates instead of the common 11t-18:1. The predicted intermediates for linoleic acid biohydrogenation were readily found, but those predicted for linolenic acid biohydrogenation remained undetected in the rumen until now.  A good example of how our expertise in the advance fatty acid analysis is applied to the study of the rumen lipid metabolism.   

Bessa, R. J. B., Alves, S. P., Santos-Silva, J. 2015. Constraints and potentials for the nutritional modulation of the fatty acid composition of ruminant meat. Eur. J. Lipid Sci. Technol. 117:1325-1344.


This work summarizes our perspectives of the available strategies to improve the fatty acid composition of ruminant meat. The problem of the altered rumen biohydrogenation pathways found in intensively finished ruminants (i.e. trans-10 shift) is reviewed and data about individual diversity, genetic effects are provided. The review also addresses the problem of the enrichment of meat with n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (i.e. C20 and C22) and a ceiling to their deposition in meat is proposed.

Aldai, N., Delmonte, P., Alves, S.P., Bessa, R.J.B., Kramer, J. F. K. 2018. Evidence for the initial steps of DHA biohydrogenation by mixed ruminal microorganisms from sheep involves formation of conjugated fatty acids. J. Agric. Food Chem. 66:842-855.

The biohydrogenation pathways of DHA (22:6n-3) is still unknown and it has been suggested that it might have no analogy with the well-established C18 polyunsaturated fatty acids biohydrogenation pathways, that start with the formation of conjugated isomers. This work, published at January 1st of 2018, describes for the first time that conjugated isomers are formed in the initial steps of the biohydrogenation of DHA and it is a major advance in this research field.  

Fradinho, M.J., Correia, M.J., Gracio, V., Bliebernitch, M., Farrim, A., Mateus, L., Martin-Rosset, W., Bessa, R.J.B., Caldeira, R.M., Ferreira-Dias, G. 2014. Effects of body condition and leptin on the reproductive performance of Lusitano mares on extensive systems. Theriogenology 81:1214-1222.

Pure Breed Lusitano (PBL) horses are now spread worldwide. The PBL mares are traditionally produced in extensive conditions in the south of Portugal. The full characterization of those production systems, in order to identify the critical points that might limit the production of high-quality foals, have been one of our aims. Here, we relate the body condition of the PBL mares with its (re)productive performance using a large data base colleted in several PBL studfarms during 3 years.     

Fradinho, M.J., R.J.B. Bessa, G. Ferreira-Dias, R.M. Caldeira. 2016. Growth and development of the Lusitano horse managed on grazing systems. Livest. Sci. 186: 22-28.

The Lusitano horse is spread worldwide. In the last decades, this ancient breed has become more popular as a sport and leisure horse. The Lusitano is traditionally produced in extensive conditions in the south of Portugal. The full characterization of those production systems, in order to identify the critical points that might limit the production of high-quality foals, has been one of our aims. Here, we characterize the growth patterns of the Lusitano horse managed on grazing systems under Mediterranean climate conditions from birth to 42 months of age, using a large database collected in several stud farms during 4 years.  

Alves, S. P., Araujo, C. M., Queiroga, R. C., Madruga, M. S., Parente, M. O. M., Medeiros, A. N., Bessa, R. J. B. 2017 New insights on the metabolism of ricinoleic acid in ruminants. J. Dairy Sci. 100:8018-8032.


This work results from a partnership between a Brazilian team and our lab and relates the metabolism of ricinoleic acid in the rumen and the formation and transfer of ricinoleic acid metabolites to goat milk.

Harris, P.A., Ellis, A.D, Fradinho, M.J., Jansson, A., Julliand, V., Luthersson, N., Santos, A.S., Vervuert, I. 2017. Review: Feeding conserved forage to horses: recent advances and recommendations. Animal 11: 958–967.  

During the 2012 meeting of the European Workshop on Equine Nutrition, in Portugal, it was agreed that there was a need for a consensus paper on the topic of preserved forage feeding to horses. Therefore, a number of experts in equine nutrition and health in Europe have come together to review the large body of updated and new knowledge which has come to light in the past 15 years. This review paper amalgamates recommendations based on the latest understanding in forage feeding for horses, defining forage types and preservation methods, hygienic quality, feed intake behaviour, typical nutrient composition, digestion and digestibility as well as health and performance implications. Based on this, consensual applied recommendations for feeding preserved forages are provided.


Major Collaborations

INIAV-Polo de Santarém (ex-Estação Zootécnica Nacional)

The ex-Estação Zootécnica Nacional (EZN), is a Animal Science Research Station of the Agriculture Ministry (INIAV). and it has been for more than a century the "mother house" of Animal Science research in Portugal. Most of us were iniiated in Animal Science research at EZN. and thus there is a intimate and continous collaboration. Due to this complicity, and to the research facilities and expertise available at EZN, most of farm animal animal experimentation is conducted at EZN and/or with active collaboartion of ex-EZN team. 


The team lead by Prof. Mira da Fonseca has common research interest (ruminant nutrition and lipid metabolism) and we have been working together for the last decade.

Department of Pharmacy and Food Sciences - University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)

Dr. Noelia Aldai spent few months in our lab and at EZN, since then we have been collaborating activelly and submiting EU research projects together.  

 We also collaborate frequently with the University of Azores, UTAD, CIMAR, CEBAL and many others.