An American animal scientists has come up with a new technique that could reduce or even eliminate the need for antibiotics in commercial livestock.
There are growing concerns that overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is leading to greater resistance to the drugs that may have major impacts on human health.
Even food industry giants such as McDonald’s are acting to reduce their consumption of meat that has been produced using the drugs.
Even without the downside risk, scientists say the fix is only a temporary solution.
“You really can’t control the bugs forever; they will always evolve a way to defeat your drugs,” says Mark Cook, a professor of animal science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Cook’s work focuses on a fundamental immune “off-switch” called Interleukin 10 or IL-10, manipulated by bacteria and many other pathogens to defeat the immune system during infection.
He and researcher Jordan Sand have found a way to disable this switch inside the intestine, and has vaccinated laying hens to create antibodies to IL-10. The hens put the antibody in eggs that are then sprayed on the feed of the animals he wants to protect. The antibody neutralizes the IL-10 off-switch in those animals, allowing their immune systems to better fight disease.
In experiments with 300,000 chickens, those that ate the antibody-bearing material were fully protected against coccidiosis, a diarrhoeal disease. Smaller tests with steers and dairy calves also show promise.
The story of how antibiotics became part of the food chain is a fascinating one that Cosmos covered in some detail last year. It all started with a small experiment with chickens in 1948 by biochemist named Thomas H. Jukes.
Since then the use of antibiotics in agriculture has become a huge multinational industry.
Until recently, the food industry had long argued that any limit on use of antibiotics in livestock feed would be an agricultural disaster, or at least the end of affordable meat.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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