Humans and animals share their bodies with trillions of microbes. They coexist within a microbiome that consists of nearly 1,000 species of archaea, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. These are benevolent and malevolent organisms that manage every aspect of health and make sure the body functions correctly. The objective is to keep this microbial ecosystem healthy and balanced by consuming prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are dietary fibers that feed benevolent bacteria. Probiotics are benevolent bacteria that protect the body by combatting malevolent bacteria. Antibiotics are antimicrobial substances that kill bacteria or prevent bacterial reproduction.
The majority of antibiotics are used by the agriculture industry to speed up animal growth and eliminate viruses. The problem is that the more we use them, the faster bacteria evolve to protect themselves and eventually become unstoppable. Probiotics are the ideal solution but manufacturing them is expensive and notoriously complex. Which is why the livestock industry is addicted to cheap antibiotics. It desperately needs an ecologically safe, effective, and affordable alternative that can meet industrial demand. That is what Mirai has achieved through the groundbreaking research of Armenian microbiologist, Alexander Selimyan. To understand how he solved this problem, we need to first understand how prebiotics, probiotics, and antibiotics work.
Prebiotics & Probiotics
The word probiotic comes from the Latin pro (for) and the Greek bios (life). The United Nations defines it as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Humans have understood the therapeutic benefits of probiotics and used fermented foods to treat illnesses for thousands of years. French scientist, Louis Pasteur finally explained how and why this is possible from a scientific point of view during the 19th century. His work gave birth to multiple branches of science and set the stage for modern biology and biochemistry. That is why Pasteur is considered the father of microbiology while Russian zoologist, Élie Metchnikoff, is considered the father of probiotics. He worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris for 28 years and in 1907, he was the first to introduce the hypothesis that some bacteria were beneficial for humans and could suppress harmful bacteria.
Probiotics are created through fermentation. The most common probiotic is yogurt, which is prepared by fermenting milk with different bacteria. While many types of bacteria are classified as probiotics, most come from two groups, namely bifidobacterium or lactobacillus, which are found in dairy products and other fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi. Each probiotic offers different benefits and the results vary because each body hosts a unique microbiome or community of bacteria.
When we eat food, only a part of it can be digested. The non-digestible parts travel through the digestive system feeding and nurturing the microbes in the body. These are called prebiotics and they were defined in 1995 by Glenn Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid. The prebiotic concept was widely accepted by the scientific community and has had a profound effect on gut health research. Simply put, our bodies are like hotels for bacteria that check in to find food and relax before they continue on their journey. Their activities regulate our health and keep us alive. When we treat them well by feeding them prebiotics, they take good care of us. Each bacteria has a unique ability and when we introduce them to other bacteria through probiotics, they form unique relationships and through those relationships, microbiologists are able to activate special abilities that can positively or negatively impact our entire planet.
Antibiotics such as moulds and plant extracts have been used to treat infections for millennia but we only found out that they were caused by bacteria in the 19th century. Bacterial infections that we now consider straightforward to treat were the number one cause of human death until the beginning of the 20th century, when scientists began to observe antibacterial chemicals in action. Paul Ehrlich, a German physician, noted that certain chemical dyes colored some bacterial cells but not others. He concluded that, according to this principle, it must be possible to create substances that can kill certain bacteria selectively without harming other cells. In 1909, he discovered that a chemical called arsphenamine was an effective treatment for syphilis. This became the first modern antibiotic but Ehrlich referred to his discovery as ‘chemotherapy’ because he used a chemical to treat a disease.
The word 'antibiotics' was first used over 30 years later by the Ukrainian-American inventor and microbiologist, Selman Waksman, who discovered over 20 antibiotics during his lifetime. In 1928, Alexander Fleming first discovered the antibiotic Penicillin when he noticed that bacteria in his lab would not grow near a certain fungus, which had accidentally found its way into his experiments. The fungus was producing a small molecule that leaked into the petri gel around it and Fleming called the liquid “mold juice”. He realized that the substance was killing the bacteria around it. He later found out that the fungus was the same bluish-green fungus that grows on old bread. This discovery earned him the Nobel Prize in 1945 and helped humanity develop the first mass-produced antibiotic.
Antibiotics work by blocking vital processes in bacteria, killing the bacteria or stopping them from multiplying. This helps the immune system fight the bacterial infection. Broad spectrum antibiotics such as amoxicillin and gentamicin affect a wide range of bacteria while narrow spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin only affect a few types of bacteria. Antibiotics are extremely effective because they only target bacterial cells. They do not affect viruses, fungi, parasites, or human cells. However, after decades of misuse, we are now facing superbugs that have become resistant to nearly all antibiotics. Common diseases are becoming untreatable, which will soon lead to millions of deaths annually. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Fleming warned the world of the dangers of misusing antibiotics. He had already noted bacteria in his lab becoming resistant to penicillin, just a few years after its discovery.
Developing completely new classes of antibiotics is very difficult. It is easy to find chemicals that kill bacteria but not so easy to find substances that could be used as medicines, even if researchers were given infinite resources. The most recent discovery of a novel antibiotic class was in 1987 and when a bacteria becomes resistant to a specific drug, it gradually gains resistance to other drugs within the same class. Antibiotic resistance is a global crisis and it is being led by the agriculture industry. Farmers have been using antibiotics since the 1950’s to prevent diseases and raise animals faster to meet industrial demand. Most of these drugs are dispensed through feed or water. It not only impacts the meat but allows superbugs to enter the food chain and threaten consumers. The majority of antibiotics are used on farm animals but the meat industry opposes any regulations on drug use and denies that there are any side effects. Industrial agriculture is an ecocidal practice that is ultrahazardous and ultralucrative. So the only way to shift this industry is by developing ecologically beneficial products and practices that are good for business.