Overuse of antibiotics throughout the world has led to a growing problem of antibiotic resistance that could lead to the total ineffectiveness of these often life-saving drugs. In the developing world, the problem is especially acute.

According to an article in the journal Nature, some studies have suggested that in Nigeria, as many as 88 percent of Staphylococcus aureus infections cannot be treated with methicillin — once a potent weapon against the microbe.

Antibiotic resistance is also a significant issue in the emerging economies known as the ‘BRIC’ states: Brazil, Russia, India and China, the article says, as well as in India and Pakistan.

The problem is especially worrisome to public health officials due to the lack of new antibiotic compounds introduced into medical practice.

But last January, researchers at Northeastern University and NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals announced they had developed a new potential antibiotic, called Teixobactin, that has some exciting new properties.

In addition to proving itself effective in the treatment of MRSA, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and M. Tuberculosis in animal efficacy trials, the compound has the potential to become resistance-proof.

Richard Novick, a microbiologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center has called it “a major breakthrough because it is virtually certain to be effective for the multi-resistant strains that are now all but impossible to treat.”

Doctors are eager for new medicines to treat infectious diseases. In the past, most antibiotics were developed through screening soil samples for microorganisms. But soil samples eventually gave way to millions of dollars fruitlessly spent on synthetic attempts to produce antibiotics.

The team from Northeastern and Novobiotic decided to turn back to mining soil-based uncultured bacteria by using a new technology called Ichip. In this approach, soil samples are diluted with agar, allowing a single bacterial cell to be isolated. Researchers are able to isolate up to 96 cells in individual “chambers” in each Ichip device. Teixobactin was discovered from a soil sample from Maine.

Seventy years of antimicrobial use and overuse have given bacteria ample time to genetically fortify themselves for a new wave of infectious disease. Now, the CDC estimates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria will infect two million people and among those two million, 23,000 will die from those infections.

The techniques used to extract Teixobactin from the Maine soil sample have opened up millions of microorganisms for future study. Ichip allows researchers to harness this biodiversity in traditionally rich environments such as forest soil and even marsh water.

“This biodiversity is also hiding a lot of chemical diversity that may include new, other antibiotics,” wrote Gerard Wright, director of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research in Canada.

Emma Betuel

Sources: The Scientist, Nature 1, The Lancet, Nature 2, ACS, CDC, Popsci
Photo: medicaldaily

Although 795 million people worldwide are still undernourished, global hunger has been steadily declining in recent years. This is due to a combination of factors, such as social protection programs, agricultural development measures, and inclusive economic growth in developing nations. So far, 72 countries have reached the Millenium Development Goal target of halving the hungry population by 2015. However, completely eliminating global hunger will be difficult with the looming threat of climate change.

Climate change has already begun affecting food production, and could increase the risk of hunger by 20 percent by 2050. The world has seen an increase in the number and intensity of both floods and droughts, which can destroy crops and necessary infrastructure. Rising sea levels can render land unsuitable for growing crops, and glacial melt can affect water quality. Higher temperatures, along with too much or too little rainfall, can decrease both the quality and quantity of crops.

The decrease in food production caused by climate change disproportionately affects those living in poverty. With less food being produced, prices will spike, meaning that many will be unable to afford to feed themselves and their families. It is time to focus on environmentally friendly methods of maintaining or increasing current levels of food production in order to continue effectively fighting world hunger.

Quality soil is the foundation for successful agricultural systems and food security. It is resilient to flood and drought, and its stores of carbon contribute to climate change mitigation. However, many do not recognize that soil is a non-renewable resource, and therefore do not understand the need for sustainable soil management.

Soil degradation is caused by unsustainable land use practices and climate extremes, and negatively impacts food security. A 60 percent increase in demand for food is expected by 2050, but with 25 percent of usable soil highly degraded and 44 percent moderately degraded, it will be difficult to keep up this level of production without intervention. Sustainable soil management needs to be prioritized on global development agendas.

There is still progress to be made in ending world hunger, and focusing on sustainable soil management can help to feed more of the world’s population. Governments need to recognize the issue of soil degradation and invest in appropriate land management projects. They also need to effectively regulate contaminants that impact soil quality, while focusing specifically on protecting organic, carbon-rich soils such as peatlands and permafrost. Systems and technologies that can produce more food using less soil will be especially important. Feeding the world’s people in the face of climate change requires a close look at the most basic requirement of food production: quality soil.

Jane Harkness

Sources: FAO, WFP 1, WFP2
Photo: Flickr

Nutrition for Growth
With last month’s G8 Summit, and the ‘Nutrition for Growth’ summit hosted in London before that, a lot of the focus has been on large amounts of international aid earmarked to combat global hunger and malnutrition.

Small-scale, localized projects play just as large a role as international aid efforts, and possibly more beneficial. The original Green Revolution increased crop yields dramatically, but at no small environmental cost. If this large-scale intervention played its role, multiple small-scale projects could produce the same results.

One such project fighting food insecurity is the Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities (SFHC) program in Malawi. This program began ten years ago with efforts to educate local farmers and diversify their crops. The original aim of the project was to improve the health, food security, and soil fertility of poor households in Northern Malawi. This goal was additionally tied into participatory research, testing legume systems and looking at more sustainable approaches to achieving greater food security.

By introducing a variety of different legume options, as well as agricultural techniques, the quality and quantity of food can both be increased, as well as improving soil quality through organic input. This Ecohealth approach, focusing on the health of the entire system and humans’ interaction with it, can be simultaneously beneficial to the communities’ short-term needs, as well as allowing for longer-term sustainability.

Ten years on from the initiation of the project there have been many encouraging signs of success. The introduction of semi-perennial rotation systems, and the diversification of crops, led in some cases to annual return yields double that of the previous system. In addition to these straightforward agricultural benefits, a further goal of SFHC was to educate the local populace regarding nutrition.

The introduction of diverse legumes into the crop rotation system improves soil quality and yield, and also diversifies the local diet. This additional food production can then directly influence the health of the children of the community. As a result of this project, child malnutrition has been reduced by two-thirds over the past ten years in a hospital catchment area serving about 70,000 people and covering 600-square kilometers. This is largely due to farmers now producing soybeans, groundnuts, and other legumes, and incorporating them into the local diet.

– David Wilson

Sources: The Guardian, Winnipeg Free Press