Penn’s microbiome conference turns eye toward antibiotic use in livestock

Whether it’s choosing antibiotic-free meat at the grocery store, adding yogurt as a daily snack, or turning a blind eye when a toddler munches on a Cheerio that has fallen on the kitchen floor, people are becoming increasingly aware that microorganisms play a starring role in our daily lives.

Next week, Penn’s Third Annual Microbiome Symposium will give members of the public, as well as the scientific community, a window into new areas of understanding as experts share what they’re learning about microbes in the environment, in animals, and in our own bodies.

“We’ve known for decades that there was a huge microbial biosphere that we knew nothing about,” says Daniel Beiting, research assistant professor of pathobiology and technical director of the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Host-Microbial Interactions (CHMI). “But it’s only in the last 10 years or so that technology has opened the door for people across disciplines to ask how the microbiome might be a factor in their organism of interest, their study system of interest.”

Presented by Penn Vet’s CHMI, the Perelman School of Medicine, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the symposium will open the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 26, with a public talk by journalist Maryn McKenna titled “Cheap Meat and the Microbiome: The Tangled History of Growth Promoter Antibiotics.”

McKenna, a contributor to National Geographic and author of two books on infectious disease, has long been interested in public health. In researching her second book, “Superbug,” she discovered that the emergence of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, could be tied in part to the overwhelming use of antibiotics in livestock, a practice that began in the 1940s to boost animals’ growth.

During her talk, McKenna will discuss the problems that arose from the massive influx of antibiotics into meat production and the policies put in place to try to control them. These issues also became the subject of her next book, to be published in the fall of 2017.

“I realized that [antibiotic use in livestock] was an underappreciated part of the problem of antibiotic resistance,” says McKenna. “The tonnage of antibiotics used in livestock far outweighs that used in humans. And not very long after this practice started, you see people warning that this was going to take us down a dangerous path.”

Following McKenna’s talk, on Thursday, Oct. 27, a full-day symposium aimed at a scientific audience will feature expert speakers from Penn and across the country, each of whom will focus on different facets of microbes and the microbiome.

“Across campus and across the country, there is just a huge interest now in the microbiome,” says Beiting. “This event gives us an opportunity to have people in the same room—basic scientists, animal clinicians, human clinicians—who might not otherwise interact so we can keep building bridges between schools and disciplines.”

Both the talk and symposium are free, but space is limited. Register at the Penn Vet website.

Penn Vet Microbiome