Plant-based peptides could offer alternatives to antibiotics currently used in livestock production, if research at Prairie Plant Systems pans out.
The Saskatoon-based company is examining the possible applications of peptides possessing antibacterial properties.
“It’s pretty preliminary research, but the idea behind it is to see if it’s possible to have feed amendments that could prevent or minimize or decrease the amount of antibiotics used in feed,” said Larry Holbrook, a senior research officer with the company.
The research began with a different goal in mind — to see if genetically modifying plants to include antimicrobial peptides would increase their disease resistance.
No field trials were done at that time, but company researchers wondered if the concept could be taken a step further to determine if animals who ate plant seeds containing the peptides would also experience greater disease resistance and improved health, Holbrook said.
“The stage we’re at now is designing the vectors to transfer this to plants to test the seed, to see if it has the activity we’re looking for,” he said.
In August, the company received a grant of more than $100,000 from the federal government’s Agricultural Innovation Program to explore and test their theory.
In preliminary trials using feed potatoes containing antimicrobial peptides, animals did show an improvement in immunity and health, Holbrook said. Researchers are now looking at a member of the brassica family, Ethiopian mustard, to see if it could be a good source of the peptide through genetic modification.
Antibiotic use in livestock production is increasingly coming under fire as a cause of antimicrobial resistance, but despite his company’s efforts to find alternatives, Holbrook calls that accusation “extremely debatable.”
“There are examples of families raising hogs where someone in the family gets antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and then the question is, did it come from the animals, or did the humans pass it to the animals?” he said. “But the antibiotic-resistant bacteria is still out there and can be found in certain stock animals.”
He also noted many producers aren’t using antibiotics to treat diseases, but to promote growth.
“They think they give them better growth rates and so it’s almost out of habit that they are using antibiotics without veterinary oversight, so they could be contributing to this overall problem of antibacterial resistance,” said Holbrook.
In the long term, new products may also lower production costs for farmers, but Holbrook said it’s too early to tell what the economic benefits of an antibiotic alternative might be.
“This is the first step in finding alternatives to the use of antibiotics in animal feed,” said Brent Zettl, CEO of Prairie Plant Systems. “The long-term goal of our research can have benefits for farmers and consumers alike.”