The Next Big Thing #7: Delaying The Post-Antibiotic Era
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013
Reckless use of antibiotics over the past 60 years has produced an epidemic of resistance. Our most important line of defense against infectious disease is rapidly crumbling. In the post-antibiotic era, the director-general of the World Health Organization recently warned, “Strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
Massive overuse of antibiotics in livestock has been a particular target of criticism. But it could also be the easiest part of the problem to fix. New technology makes it possible, for the first time, to understand the microbes involved at every stage in an animal’s life. That could give livestock producers a way to simply tweak “good” bacteria instead of routinely feeding their animals antibiotics to kill off “bad” bacteria.
It’s not just about pork, chicken, and cattle farming. Commercial fish farming has also faced sharp criticism for its reliance on antibiotics that can escape into surrounding environments. But in an experiment at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, researchers tried a new approach. Instead of treating the water in hatchery tanks with antibiotics to prevent infections, the researchers instead colonized the tank water with a diverse community of beneficial bacteria to keep out opportunistic pathogens. This strategy of “competitive exclusion” lowered the death rate and produced young fish that were healthier and more robust. It also translated into reduced need for antibiotics or other treatments later in life, when the fish move out to pens in the open ocean.
Cargill, the American meat-packing company, recently tested a similar approach. Using competitive exclusion with healthy bacteria, its researchers reduced the amount of salmonella present in factory-reared turkeys by 90 percent. The only thing delaying implementation of these probiotic methods is the food industry’s unlimited access to antibiotics—and the persistent myth that the only good bacteria are dead ones.