Martí-Franquès COFUND Fellowship Programme


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Health Sciences

Supervisor name and surname:

Raúl Beltrán

Supervisor email:

Supervisor short biography

Co-supervisor name and surname:

David Torrallardona

Co-supervisor email:

Co-supervisor institution:


Co-supervisor short biography

PhD programme:

Nutrition and Metabolism

Title of the research project:

Gut barrier function in livestock: understanding the mechanisms of disruption and evaluation of possible bioactive substances to improve it

Description of the research project:

The animals’ fast growth and the intensive management practices can sometimes disturb the proper maturation and functionality of their digestive system. Intestinal barrier function is critical for maintaining optimal gut health and animal performance. Intestinal homeostasis in healthy animals is ensured by the complex intestinal barrier system, a dynamic structure that separates intestinal contents from the host tissues, regulates nutrient absorption and allows interactions between the resident bacterial flora and the mucosal immune system. The intestinal barrier is composed of a thick mucus layer containing antimicrobial products, a monolayer of intestinal epithelial cells and an underlying set of immune cells (1).

The production environment could add stressors affecting the health and growth of animals. These stressors can include environment, nutrition, and infection. They can reduce growth performance and alter immune systems including the intestinal barrier function (2). Heat stress increases the permeability, oxidative stress, and inflammatory responses in the gut. Nutritional stress from fasting, antinutritional compounds, and toxins induces the leakage and destruction of the tight junction proteins in the gut. Pathogenic and viral infections can also lead to loosening the intestinal barrier. In the past, antibiotics had been commonly used for prophylaxis or as growth promoters and probably helped controlling barrier function disturbances. However, these practices have been banned in the EU (and many other countries) due to the increased occurrences of microbial resistance to antibiotics, and therefore alternative products are needed (3).

The alterations in the intestinal barrier often challenge homeostasis of animals which results in neuroendocrine alteration, reduced feed intake, growth rates and increased morbidity and mortality, factors that influence animal health negatively and in the end, lower the productivity (4). Exploring different nutritional factors, management and strategies that focus on promoting livestock growth are critical to optimizing performance. For these reasons, it is crucial to find solutions to prevent/ameliorate/reverse intestinal barrier alterations. However, the molecular mechanisms that relate the stressors with gut barrier damage are not fully described.

In this scenario our main objectives are:

1) To investigate ex vivo the molecular mechanisms linking the stressors with the specific gut alterations.
2) Once identified the molecular pathways, we aim to test ex vivo potential nutritional supplements that might prevent/reverse these barrier alterations.
3) Once we have tested the different compounds ex vivo, we will test the effectiveness of those bioactives with the most potential in livestock animals, mainly pigs and poultry.

This proposal is challenging and attractive because it implies the collaboration between experts from two research centers. On one hand, the Research group from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, MoBioFood (, has a wide experience in evaluating the effects of food bioactives on intestinal heatlh in several experimental models. On the other hand, the Animal Nutrition Program from IRTA ( aims to improve the value of animal production by integrating research in animal nutrition. This complementary backgrounds from both groups assure synergistic and both basic and applied results that will contribute to the improvement of animals’ welfare and food safety.

1. Lee IK et al. (2016). Asian-Australasian J Anim Sci 29, 1075–1082.
2. Robinson K et al. (2015). Front Vet Sci 2.
3. Qin L et al. (2019). Food Funct 10, 2359–2371.
4. Ji FJ et al. (2019). Animal 13, 2727–2735.
Ethics: This project involves ethical aspects.

Workplace location: IRTA, Constantí

Gross anual salary:

27103.20 €


Full time

Working hours:

37.5 hours a week

Expected start date:

15 March 2021

European union This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 945413