Improving Pig Diets to Prevent Antimicrobial Resistance

image of pigs in field
A new project aims to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising pigs by better nutrition to strengthen intestinal defenses in piglets. Piglets often develop diarrhea at weaning, which is treated with antibiotics. (Getty)
Amy Quinton

Researchers from UC Davis and universities in Denmark and the Netherlands are joining forces in a new research project to reduce the need for antibiotics in pig production by improving intestinal resilience in developing piglets. The $21.2 million, 5-year PIG-PARADIGM project is funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Overuse of antibiotics contributes to bacteria becoming resistant to antimicrobials. More than 700,000 people die each year from infections that are resistant to most, or all, antibiotics. The World Health Organization predicts that in just 30 years antimicrobial resistance will become the third leading cause of death globally.

UC Davis will receive $3.8 million as part of the grant. Maria Marco, professor in the food science and technology department will lead the research to understand how pig diets can be improved. The team also includes Professor Andreas Bäumler with UC Davis Health, Professor Titus Brown with the School of Veterinary Medicine, Peng Ji, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, Associate Professor Yanhong Liu, Department of Animal Science and Professor Carolyn Slupsky with the departments of food science and technology, and of nutrition. The scientists want to understand how to increase pigs’ natural defenses and immunity in the gut.

“Through interdisciplinary research supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation we are positioned to decode the complexities of the digestive tract which have thus far eluded researchers,” said Marco. “With this knowledge, we will be able to innovate to provide new approaches needed to prevent antibiotic resistance spread.”

Research on pig intestines will save lives

Like humans, pigs develop a complex intestinal microbiome shortly after birth. However, many piglets get diarrhea at weaning when they are separated from the sow and adapt to the challenge of a new environment and a new diet. Piglets become vulnerable to enteric infections which require the use of antibiotics to prevent disease transmission, and the suffering and death of piglets. Antibiotics are designed to kill or reduce the growth of the bacteria that make pigs sick, but they can also eliminate the natural intestinal microbiome, which is important for development of immunity in early life. 

The researchers will investigate how members of the intestinal microbiome, including bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses, interact and whether changes in dietary composition or the environment can affect the intestinal microbiome so that less antibiotics are required.

“We know that diet and nutrition strongly affect the composition and function of the gut microbiome among both humans and pigs. Obtaining knowledge about what characterises a healthy and an unhealthy gut will enable us to design the optimal feed-induced gut microbiome, which can strengthen the immune response and the health of the pigs. This will avoid the need for antibiotics,” said Professor Charlotte Lauridsen, head of the Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Collaborating institutions on the PIG-PARADIGM include Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, and Aalborg University, Denmark; and Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands.