The biggest threat to the world? It's not disease. Or Trump

“Most people recognise we need clean water,” says microbiologist Jo Handelsman, but nearly all of us underestimate the importance of a less glamorous material: soil. “Soil is often called dirt, and it’s not very well respected in this world. It is probably the most critical resource right now that we are losing at a very high clip.”

Handelsman’s primary mission is antibiotics. She finds new ones and is part of the global battle to counter antibiotic resistance. She is also on a crusade to tackle gender bias in science. And she says all scientists, driven by data and evidence, must challenge US president Donald Trump’s “anti-science”.

But soil is her current obsession. The disappearance of soils rather than disease is the biggest threat to the world, she predicts. It will exacerbate global starvation and shut off the main channel for generating new antibiotics.

“Agriculture and the environment are the things that will really devastate the human condition; much worse than human disease,” says the former scientific adviser to former US president Barack Obama, now director of Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“If we can’t grow crops, which is the direction we are all going, by losing our soil just washing away across the world, then disease isn’t going to be the problem, starvation is.”

During a recent visit to Dublin, she cites projections from her time in the White House. The US will have hardly any soil by the end of this century, she says, even though areas of the US midwest have the richest and deepest soils in the world, outside Ukraine.

“There are areas where we have used up all our top soil and we are right down to subsoil and bedrock. We can’t continue that way, and still have a food supply. We need to build an appreciation of our natural resources, and in particular soil.”

Antibiotics and probiotics

Some 75 per cent of our antibiotics in current use have come from soil, she notes. If we found more, perhaps there would be a greater appreciation for soils, suggests Handelsman.

On new sources of antibiotics, she says: “I think we are going to be in trouble. One of the problems with humankind is that we don’t anticipate problems far enough in advance…There has to be a crisis before they are taken seriously. The problem with new antibiotics is it’s usually a 10-year lead-in time. So we can’t be in a crisis and have a solution tomorrow.”

The solution, however, is multifaceted. It should include managing the antibiotics we have in a better way, faster and harder work on discovery of new antibiotics, and alternatives to antibiotics. Avoiding disease in the first place through hygiene and good health has to be in the mix, through management of both humans and animals. Consuming probiotics using bacteria to fight other bacteria is beginning to emerge as an option.

She believes probiotics could be beneficial but says “we don’t have the knowledge yet”. “There are some good studies that show they can have beneficial effects in the case of colic in children, gut ailments, ulcers, and immune disorders.”

Probiotics, none the less, are “getting more play in real research studies”. But right now, “there’s kind of a mixture of ‘snake oil’ and selling people a product that may or may not do something.”

On current antibiotic use, she says there is a tremendous overuse in animals and to some degree in humans too. “We have to take responsibility for that in medicine as well as in veterinary treatments.”

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