Could anaerobic digestion combat drug-resistant ‘superbugs’?

UK malt suppliers and producers Muntons has revealed that by-products formed at its anaerobic digestion (AD) plants could eventually be used to combat drug-resistant "superbugs" such as E. coli.

Muntons are exploring the potential of its unique digestate plant feedstock, which is formed alongside biogas during the AD process. Early tests suggest that the produce could be housing bacteria that can be used to combat Micrococcus and previously drug resistant E. coli.

“At Muntons we are committed to further advancing the knowledge surrounding the benefits of AD digestate,” the company’s environment manager Ryland Cairns said. “As such we are keen to get a better understanding of its composition whether this be related to nutrients, phytometabolites or in this particular case novel antibiotic producing bacteria.”

“We were pleased to find out that our AD plant appears to produce antibiotics that could potentially be developed as a medicine in the future to combat Micrococcus and drug resistant E. coli. Due to the varying nature of AD plants and feedstock it would be great to know what is lurking inside other digesters”.

Drug bust

A sample of the AD plants digestate was sent to the University College of London’s Dr Adam Roberts for analysis as a part of the ‘swab and send program’ – a project that aims to discover new antibiotics by analysing swabs sent in from the public. Further research is being conducted on the samples to identify the strain of bacteria and its resulting compound in order to determine whether the bacteria is indeed novel.

Waste treatment plants are generally considered hotbeds for drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ due to large number of antibiotics and conditions that promote the growth of bacteria in their sewers. Identifying and potentially reusing bacteria from AD plant operations in medicine highlights how the AD process could promote clean energy and healthy living standards.

For now, AD plants will remain as a source of renewable energy that can power on-site needs or be fed to the grid. Earlier this year, one of the UK’s largest on-site cheese creameries, First Milk, announced its plans to feed Bio-methane from its AD plant into the national grid as well as supplying 25% of the sites energy requirements.

Even colleges are discovering the benefits of AD plants, after Sparsholt College in Hampshire teamed up with energy supplier Ecotricity to build a green gas mill that takes grass from surrounding farmland and transforms it into Biogas to supply the college and the National Grid.

Alex Baldwin

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