Fewer antibiotics, better health for humans and animals

(02-09-2021) How can we keep animals healthy with food without antibiotics? Ghent University professor Marjan De Mey and Chiara Guidi are investigating how COS molecules can contribute to the fight against antibiotic resistance.

Postdoctoral researcher Chiara Guidi

Antibiotics are essentials to fight disease and prevent infections during surgery. Unfortunately, overuse leads to dangerously resistant bacteria. As a result, antibiotics become less and less effective, leading to antimicrobial resistance or AMR. Today, more than 700,000 people worldwide die every year from this phenomenon. It is estimated that by 2050, 10 million lives will be at stake each year due to the emergence of drug-resistant infections. By comparison, that would be more than the number of people who will die from cancer by 2050. It is clear that AMR is high on the agenda of government leaders worldwide, as well as that of Ghent University professor Marjan De Mey and postdoctoral researcher Chiara Guidi. They are researching the efficient and large-scale production of alternatives in order to keep animals healthy without adding antibiotics to their diet. Because, if antibiotics are no longer administered during animal breeding, we as humans also get fewer antimicrobial agents in our bodies. In this way we can limit resistance to antibiotics.

COS molecules as an alternative to antibiotics

They find the alternative to antibiotics in animal feed in COS molecules, or chitooligosaccharides. These molecules consist of two important building blocks, glucosamine and acetylglucosamine. With these building blocks you can make all kinds of different combinations for specific purposes, which work according to the key-lock principle. With a specific combination of COS molecules you create a key that can open the unique lock of a specific protein in plants, animals or people and thus trigger a certain reaction. With the right COS key you can increase immunity in animals, plants or humans, reduce methane emissions in cows, increase meat quality… or even use them as probiotics. The applications are endless, both in pharma, plant cultivation, aquaculture, cosmetics…


Until now, COS was mainly produced from shrimp and crustacean waste. By breaking down these shells and mixing them with chemicals, you artificially create a complex mix of COS molecules. But in this process you have little control over the end result. “Even if you go through the same steps and add the same chemicals or enzymes, you can never be sure that the different batches will work the same,” says Chiara Guidi, who leads the COS study. “So, if you want a specific key, you have to do a lot of efforts to purify the batch, which entails high costs. Due to the addition of chemicals, this is also not a sustainable way of working. Moreover, the chance of allergic reactions is very high, which is important if you want to move to humane applications.”

Small cell factories to build COS molecules

At Ghent University, they start from the opposite principle. Instead of breaking down, they build up the COS molecules with the help of micro-organisms. “By using the metabolism of the micro-organisms, we build up the COS building blocks in a natural way. We actually build small cell factories with simple raw materials such as water and sugar. And because we have better control of the process ourselves, we can also more easily identify and create unique COS keys for specific applications,” says Guidi. “Due to the high degree of purity of our molecules, their effect is also much more effective compared to the COS molecules based on crustacean waste.”

Research and valorization

After years of research, the time has come to take the step towards economic valorization. With a Vlaio Innovation mandate, Chiara Guidi and professor De Mey can further investigate the commercial application of their scientific results. “The intention is to set up a spin-off within 2 years, with which we will effectively market our COS molecules. We see plenty of opportunities in different sectors. By developing exclusive COS molecules for specific applications, we can build strategic alliances and thus help reduce the use of antibiotics,” concludes Chiara Guidi. With the help of business developer Nele Ameloot and the Venture Track team, which guides researchers who want to start their own company based on Ghent University technology, they are making further progress.


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