Could the relationship between animals, drugs and superbugs mean the end of modern antibiotics as we know them?

Maryn McKenna, WIRED columnist and senior fellow at Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, addressed the question at length at an event on Tuesday afternoon. McKenna’s talk, titled “Farming, Antibiotics and the Future of Meat,” drew an audience of nearly 100 to Linsly-Chittenden Hall, including professors and academics from various departments and a handful of students.

“We’re watching a game of leapfrog between bugs and drugs,” she warned. “And right now, the bugs have lept ahead.”

McKenna published her first book on the subject, called “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA,” in 2010, and she has reported on antibiotic resistance ever since. Her talk on antibiotics went hand-in-hand with a book she released in 2017, “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.”

Carl Zimmer, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and the organizer of the event, introduced McKenna to the audience.

“It’s always a pleasure and a terror to read her work,” he said. “She does an amazing job of explaining how we get sick and what we can do about it,” he said.

McKenna began the talk by rewinding to the years just after World War II, when antibiotics were first documented as being used in livestock production. In 1948, a scientist named Thomas Jukes discovered that administering drugs to chickens could not only protect the animals against disease but also increase their growth. Jukes’ discovery was incredibly valuable at the time, since the United States was experiencing meat shortages, and many farmers were concerned about their livestock, according to McKenna. The administration of certain drugs — like aureomycin, which is used to treat infections in humans — to farm animals spiked in prevalence shortly afterward and has continued ever since.

In the United States, livestock receive four times as many antibiotics as humans do, according to McKenna. And many of the livestock given the antibiotics are not actually sick, she emphasized.

“When we use drugs in humans, we are taking a chance that the bacteria will learn to protect themselves against the drug. However, we are balancing that risk against the benefit of curing infection,” she said. “We’re tipping that balance toward risk by administering these drugs to animals.”

When livestock are given antibiotics, McKenna explained, there is an opportunity for bacteria inside the organism to mutate and become resistant to the drug. Furthermore, many of the antibiotics administered to these organisms are the same ones administered to humans. Thus if these antibiotic-resistant bacteria were to be transferred to humans when they consume the livestock product, there would be very little that could be done to treat and kill the bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are responsible for more than 700,000 deaths worldwide each year. And if there are no changes to the way livestock are raised, McKenna said, this number could spike to 10,000,000 by the year 2050.

In addition to speaking about the bleakness of the current state of affairs, McKenna also detailed some ongoing efforts to address the issue. These included moves by large poultry companies, like Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods, to eliminate antibiotics from their production farms.

McKenna’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer period. After the event, she sold and signed books for those interested.

“I hadn’t heard about the book until I bought it this morning, but I hope to use it in my class next fall,” said Barbara Stuart, a lecturer in the English department who will be teaching a class called “The Real World of Food.”

McKenna’s book was named the Best Science Book of 2017 by Amazon, the Smithsonian and Science News, according to her website.

Madison Mahoney | madison.mahoney@yale.edu