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The fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria may start from compost

Posted February 8, 2018

What if it was possible to remove genes that cause antibiotic resistance in bacteria? We would simple eliminate them from the gene pool and everything would suddenly be fine. Scientists from the University of York think that this is not such a crazy idea – they found a way to remove antibiotic resistant genes from industrial compost, which could help solving the problem.

Hyperthermophilic composting increases the temperature of material from within, killing antibiotic resistant bacteria. Image credit: Visitor7 via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Picture this – a horse get sick and receives an antibiotic treatment. Bacteria in its body react by evolving to have resistance to such drugs. Then these bacteria get to the compost through horse’s manure and from compost they eventually target humans. Seems hardly possible? That is exactly what is happening. Killing all bacteria in the compost pile is simply not possible – something has to break down the waste into a usable material. But now scientists figured out a way how to remove only the bacteria that is carrying the gene associated with antibiotic resistance – all it takes is 90 degrees Celsius.

Avoiding antibiotics in farming is virtually impossible, because animals live in very dense environments, where diseases spread easily. Dr Ville Friman, one of the authors of the study, said: “Antibiotic resistance genes are then transferred to the faeces of the animal, which is later used as manure in compost that is spread on fields to fertilize crops. Anitibiotic resistance is a significant global health issue, so we need to find ways of reducing the likelihood of these genes entering the food chain”. The best solution might be a different kind of composting – hyperthermophilic composting heats up the material (mixed up manure and plants) from within to the temperature of 90 degrees Celsius. This, apparently, kills bacteria that carry antibiotic resistance genes.

The best thing is that hyperthermophilic composting actually does not increase the cost – at least not significantly. It is also an industrial method, which means that it is readily achievable on a big scale. Reducing compost is not desirable, because traditional composting can actually help farmers to reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. This in turn could produce healthier and more environmentally-friendly food, but we have to take make it safe in terms of bacteria in our food chain.

Antibiotic resistance is a huge global problem. Scientists are doing their best to solve it, but so far results have not been great. Hopefully, these small steps will help us protect ourselves from these superbugs.


Source: University of York

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