When Ricks College became BYU-Idaho, Professor Todd Kelson was inspired by one of the slogans used during the transition, “Rethinking Education.” He had led biology labs for years but wanted to do something more innovative. Kelson found Tiny Earth, a global network of professors who work with their students to address antibiotic resistance. Since 2014, Kelson has been helping BYU-Idaho students discover antibiotics in the soil.
Most antibiotics come from a natural product such as soil bacteria. For Kelson’s lab, BYU-Idaho students collect a soil sample. Then they find bacteria in the soil that are producing chemicals designed to kill other bacteria. Each semester about 150 students discover new antibiotics.
“They are discovering something that has never been discovered before,” Kelson said.
Why is discovering antibiotics so important? It all comes down to the antibiotic resistance crisis. As bacteria in our bodies mutate to resist antibiotics, antibiotics stop working. These bacteria can be spread, spreading illnesses that cannot be treated with existing antibiotics.
“There are some who believe that if we don’t start to find new antibiotics, that by the year 2050 more than 10 million people will die of bacterial infections that today are easily cured by just taking an antibiotic,” Kelson said.
New research reveals the dangers of antibiotic resistance. According to a recent global study, drug resistant bacteria killed nearly 1.3 million people and bacterial infections that resisted antibiotics contributed to the deaths of 4.95 million in 2019.
This means that new antibiotics must be found.
It takes between 10 and 15 years of research and about $1 billion for an antibiotic to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration. However, Kelson is hopeful that one day student research in Rexburg will lead to a drug that can treat infection.
“That’s kind of the exciting thing for these students is to realize that maybe further down the road there will be a new drug that will save lives because of their discovery that happened this week,” Kelson said.
Kelson says that everyone can help prevent antibiotic resistance by practicing good hygiene and taking antibiotics as prescribed when necessary. He recommends washing your hands frequently and staying home when sick. In cases where antibiotics are necessary, Kelson says that taking the full course of antibiotics is crucial, even if symptoms leave. Take the antibiotic until the bottle is empty, and do not share with friends or family, Kelson says. When antibiotic use is stopped mid-course, bacteria remain in the system. That bacteria can mutate to become antibiotic resistant. At that point, if you get sick again, the antibiotic will not treat you or those you infected.
Although the consequences of antibiotic resistance seem daunting, Kelson and his students, along with other students around the world, are working to discover solutions. More about Tiny Earth can be found here.