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The Hidden Dangers of Antibiotics in Farming: How Our Immune System is at Risk

Antibiotics have long been used in agriculture to promote livestock growth and protect animals from diseases. However, recent scientific discoveries reveal that the extensive use of antibiotics in farming has inadvertently led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, posing a significant threat to human health. One such antibiotic, colistin, was widely used as a growth promoter on pig and chicken farms, especially in China. Scientists have shown that the extensive use of colistin in livestock since the 1980s has led to the emergence and spread of E. coli bacteria carrying colistin-resistance genes. As a result, the genes that allow these bacteria to become resistant to colistin also enable them to more readily evade the antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) that form a cornerstone of our immune response. While colistin is now banned as a livestock food additive in many countries, including China, these findings highlight the potential dangers of using antimicrobials indiscriminately in agriculture, as it compromises our immune system and puts us at risk of antibiotic-resistant infections.

In a recent study, E. coli carrying a resistance gene called MCR-1 were exposed to AMPs that play essential roles in innate immunity in chickens, pigs, and humans. The bacteria were also tested for their susceptibility to human blood serum. The results showed that E. coli carrying the MCR-1 gene were at least twice as resistant to being killed by human serum. On average, the gene increased resistance to human and animal AMPs by 62% compared with bacteria that lacked the gene. Additionally, the resistant E. coli was twice as likely to kill moth larvae injected with the infection than the control E. coli strain. These findings have significant implications for developing new antibiotic medicines, particularly those in the same class as colistin, known as antimicrobial peptides. Scientists warn that if bacteria evolve resistance to AMP-based drugs, it could make them resistant to one of the pillars of our immune system, jeopardizing our health.

While the prevalence of these strains of E. coli has dropped since the ban on using colistin as a growth promoter, the findings demonstrate a real risk that has yet to be extensively considered. Antimicrobial resistance is a dire global threat. The United Nations warned that as many as 10 million people a year could die by 2050 due to superbugs. Therefore, the need for new antibiotics is pressing. There is growing interest in the potential of AMPs as drugs, including those based on human AMPs.

Scientists are not calling for the development of such drugs to be halted. Still, they emphasize the need for careful risk assessments of the likelihood of resistance emerging and the potential consequences. This research raises concerns about the potential risks of AMPs. It highlights the importance of considering the unintended consequences of antibiotic use in farming. The extensive use of antibiotics in farming has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, posing a significant threat to human health. As the findings of recent studies suggest, the implications of antibiotic use in agriculture extend far beyond developing resistance to drugs, potentially affecting our immune system and putting us at risk of infections.