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According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time. The largest incubator for antibiotic resistance is the factory farming of animals where livestock are administered large antibiotic doses often and kept in infection-prone conditions.

Another area where antibiotic use is common is in cell culturing for biological research and engineering. To what degree is this use of antibiotics contribute to the public health challenge today, and moving forward as the biotechnology sector grows?

I am curious both about the impact for yeast cell culturing, and also for the culturing of meats as a future food source. I wonder how the problem differs from the antibiotic resistance problem in the livestock industry, and how this might affect the outlook of a future filled with synthetic biologic products and lab-grown meat.

I see two differences off the bat between livestock farming and cell culturing:

  1. animals have much more powerful immune systems than cultures
  2. culture contamination can be much more readily monitored and responded to by operators
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Antibiotics are used in very different ways in cell culture and in livestock farming.

As you note, in farming, antibiotics are used to manage infection in unsanitary conditions and also to increase animal growth. Farming is essentially an inherently non-sterile environment and so there's not really any good way to keep microbes from spreading and interchanging, potentially carrying antibiotics resistance with them.

In cell cultures, on the other hand, one is typically working with a largely sterile environment, and it has to be maintained that way in order for the cell culture to work. They are far, far more delicate than farm animals---but they also can be entirely enclosed in a sealed vessel. Getting a significant contaminant into such an environment is not a "treat the sick animal" situation but a "sterilize and purge the bad batch" situation. Antibiotics are indeed often used as part of this defense, but the potential modes of infection are very different than with animals, which rules out many classes of pathogen simply because they are adapted for respiratory or gastrointestinal transmission, and a cell culture does not have these things.

Moreover, for most current industrial cell cultures, if the product is not the cells themselves, everything alive including pathogens will generally get killed off during later stages of the process (e.g., pasteurization of wine and beer). If the cells themselves are the target of mass-scale culturing, e.g., cultured meat, however, then there will indeed be opportunities for antibiotic resistant pathogens to be developed and spread, particularly as increasing scale of operation offers more opportunities for sloppy operations and regulatory evasion by low-cost operators.

Bottom line: antibiotic resistance is generally far less of a concern with cell culture than with livestock, but may still be at least somewhat of an issue.

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