Fat is an important constituent contributing to the organoleptic, processing and physical properties of ruminant milk. Understanding the regulation of milk fat synthesis is central to the development of nutritional strategies to enhance the nutritional value of milk, decrease milk energy secretion and improve the energy balance of lactating ruminants. Nutrition is the major environmental factor regulating the concentration and composition of fat in ruminant milk. Feeding low-fibre/high-starch diets and/or lipid supplements rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids induce milk fat depression (MFD) in the bovine, typically increase milk fat secretion in the caprine, whereas limited data in sheep suggest that the responses are more similar to the goat than the cow. Following the observation that reductions in milk fat synthesis during diet-induced MFD are associated with increases in the concentration of specific trans fatty acids in milk, the biohydrogenation theory of MFD was proposed, which attributes the causal mechanism to altered ruminal lipid metabolism leading to increased formation of specific biohydrogenation intermediates that exert anti-lipogenic effects. Trans-10, cis-12 conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is the only biohydrogenation intermediate to have been infused at the abomasum over a range of experimental doses (1.25 to 14.0 g/day) and shown unequivocally to inhibit milk fat synthesis in ruminants. However, increases in ruminal trans-10, cis-12 CLA formation do not explain entirely diet-induced MFD, suggesting that other biohydrogenation intermediates and/or other mechanisms may also be involved. Experiments involving abomasal infusions (g/day) in lactating cows have provided evidence that cis-10, trans-12 CLA (1.2), trans-9, cis-11 CLA (5.0) and trans-10 18:1 (92.1) may also exert anti-lipogenic effects. Use of molecular-based approaches have demonstrated that mammary abundance of transcripts encoding for key lipogenic genes are reduced during MFD in the bovine, changes that are accompanied by decrease in sterol response element binding protein 1 (SREBP1) and alterations in the expression of genes related to the SREBP1 pathway. Recent studies indicate that transcription of one or more adipogenic genes is increased in subcutaneous adipose tissue in cows during acute or chronic MFD. Feeding diets of similar composition do not induce MFD or substantially alter mammary lipogenic gene expression in the goat. The available data suggests that variation in mammary fatty acid secretion and lipogenic responses to changes in diet composition between ruminants reflect inherent interspecies differences in ruminal lipid metabolism and mammary specific regulation of cellular processes and key lipogenic enzymes involved in the synthesis of milk fat triacylglycerides.
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