Reducing disease without increased antimicrobial resistance
The following blog is a summary of the Ag Future podcast episode at Alltech ONE Dublin with Dr. Fiona Walsh hosted by Tom Martin, with added insights from Dr. Walsh’s presentation at Alltech ONE Dublin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the biggest threats to the global health of humans, animals and the environment. By 2050, more humans globally will die from issues related to antibiotic resistance than from cancer. Within the same timeframe, there will be an 11% loss in livestock production just from antimicrobial resistance.
At Alltech ONE Dublin, Dr. Fiona Walsh, professor of microbiology at Maynooth University and head of the Antimicrobial Resistance One Health Research Centre, presented ideas on reducing animal disease without increasing antibiotic resistance.
“What we need to really remember is that it’s not only a human health problem. This is a One Health problem,” Dr. Walsh said. “[AMR] is increasing in animal health. It will reduce productivity. It will ensure that we cannot treat infections when we have more antimicrobial resistance.”
“One Health” is a movement toward greater awareness of, and action on, the health aspects of interactions between humans, animals and the environment. AMR is a threat to One Health because it can transfer between animals and soil or between food and humans.
Understanding plasmid-mediated AMR transmission and its impact
Plasmids are mobile pieces of DNA that can move between different bacteria, including bacteria of the same species or different species. They are the primary carriers of AMR genes and the smallest genetic components capable of transferring resistance.
Understanding how plasmids transfer between bacteria is key in identifying ways to prevent resistance transfer. This includes investigating the factors that inhibit transfer and exploring how plasmids move within and between humans and animals, particularly from non-pathogenic to pathogenic bacteria, where they pose a significant threat.
When animals are healthy and don’t require antimicrobials, plasmids present in antimicrobials have no selective advantage. The concern arises when plasmids carrying resistance genes are present in bacteria that are causing infections, necessitating the use of antibiotics. Therefore, health maintenance is crucial, preventing diseases rather than relying on cures.
The importance of reducing reliance on antibiotic agents
According to Dr. Walsh, it is important to focus on practices that can prevent or at least reduce the occurrence of infections on-farm that need antibiotic treatment. Transitioning to farming practices that require minimal or no antibiotics is essential, but it should be done in a way that keeps the animals healthy in a productive environment.
Dr. Walsh reminded us that farming needs to be economically viable. While organizations advocate for banning antibiotics in animal production, we must consider the broader impact beyond the price of food, as consumers may bear the cost. Maintaining animal health is vital for a successful transition to antibiotic-free production.
Balancing sustainability and profitability
Achieving a balance between sustainability and profitability in agriculture requires considering various impacts and the perspectives of both farmers and consumers. The value that consumers place on antibiotic-free meat, for example, influences their willingness to pay a higher price for such products. However, if consumers fail to recognize the worth of antibiotic-free meat, farmers may face challenges as profits lag behind the higher costs of meeting today’s stricter regulations on antibiotics.
While scientists can contribute by listening to the difficulties faced by industry professionals and offering solutions, achieving sustainability requires collective effort. Multiple organizations and stakeholders must collaborate to develop and implement strategies that address these challenges effectively.
The futures of microbiomes, animal health and AMR prevention
“This is essentially our golden era in terms of microbiomes,” Dr. Walsh said. We already know that a strong, well-balanced microbiome can be a powerful defense system, and as we further our understanding of this vital topic, there will be future opportunities for innovation.
Additionally, advancements in sequencing technologies offer exciting prospects, allowing researchers to visualize individual bacteria within the microbiome without the need for lab cultivation. This breakthrough allows for a comprehensive understanding of each bacterium’s identity and function, offering a clear window into the microbiome’s dynamics and the presence of plasmids and their bacterial hosts. This deeper comprehension of complex interactions is providing abundant data for further exploration.
Finally, Dr. Walsh highlighted how AI and modeling now play a crucial role in understanding interactions between plasmids, bacteria, AMR, and microbiomes. AI enables large-scale analysis, allowing researchers to explore global scenarios such as the removal of antibiotics from chicken production coupled with the influence of climate change. Through AI, we can examine intricate genetic changes and movements within bacteria at a micro level. However, it is important to acknowledge that the reliability of models depends on the quantity and quality of the underlying data, and Dr. Walsh raised the importance of smaller-scale experiments to validate these large-scale models.
Related ONE content
Alltech ONE Dublin focused on collaborative solutions to the challenges facing the agri-food industry as it confronts the “4 Cs” — the major forces of climate, conflict, consumer trends and rising costs.
Explore our other content, including photos and videos, from Alltech ONE Dublin at one.alltech.com/Dublin and the links below.
Opening keynote: Feeding people while preserving the planet