An Agricultural Research Service scientist at the Southern Plains Agricultural Research Center in College Station, Texas, has developed an alternative to antibiotics to control E. coli, the leading cause of sickness and death in newborn and weaned pigs.

Roger Harvey, a veterinary medical officer in the ARS Food and Feed Safety Research Unit at College Station, lead an effort to develop a mixed culture of beneficial bacteria that’s being referred to as “RPCF” — for recombined porcine continuous-flow. Scientists think that RPCF might one day be able to replace today’s antibiotic treatments. Other practices used in tandem with RPCF include: regulation of ambient temperature, high hygiene and applications of zinc oxide.

Harvey’s method involves colonizing  young pigs’ intestinal tracts with a mixture of beneficial bacteria obtained from other pigs. This helps establish healthy microbial populations in the gut much quicker than would other-wise occur. These “good” bacteria attach to intestinal walls, blocking sites so that disease-causing, “bad” bacteria can’t attach and compete for needed nutrients. Some of the colonizing bacteria also produce bactericidal compounds that work against disease-causing pathogens, further reducing their ability to colonize the intestinal tract.

About 35,000 pigs were tested at four nursery farms and one wean-to-finish operation in five different U.S. regions. These farms had previously been diagnosed with disease caused by the F-18 strain of E. coli. So far, the RPCF mixture of beneficial bacteria has been shown to reduce illness, death and medication costs from E. coli infections, compared to untreated pigs.

To read more about the research, go to http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/mar04/pigs0304.htm