Every year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) selects an elite group of researchers under the age of 40 to participate in their Young Scientists program. As announced on May 26, this year’s cohort of 25 rising-star investigators from around the world includes Jennifer Ronholm, an Assistant Professor cross-appointed to the Departments of Animal Science and Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry, in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
“Being named to the WEF Young Scientists community is really an honour,” says Ronholm, who is working to strengthen the microbiome of agricultural animals to resist infections in the absence of antibiotics, with the aim of reducing the spread of antimicrobial resistance. “To me, it is a very kind acknowledgement of the dedication, long hours, and hard work that has gone into my research over the last decade.”
Created in 2008, the Young Scientists community is comprised of “extraordinary scientists from various academic disciplines and geographies,” says the WEF website. “They are committed to integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good. In the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the community helps leaders engage with science and the role it plays in society.”
Collaboration and cross-pollination
The Young Scientists program lasts three years and, says Ronholm, “comes with an extensive set of opportunities – which is why this is particularly exciting.”
Under normal circumstances, the new WEF Young Scientists would meet in China to network. But while COVID-19 has made it impossible to meet in person, the 2020 cohort has wasted no time in cross-pollinating ideas.
“We’ve already been meeting regularly over ZOOM and discussing potential collaborations,” says Ronholm. “I’m getting to hear great ideas about research, teaching, and public outreach that I would have never have heard outside of this program. I’m excited to build on ideas and help where I can.”
She is also excited about being able to write articles about her research and other important science topics for the WEF blog Agenda.
“This blog has a monthly readership of five million people, some of whom are business leaders, policy experts and decision makers,” says Ronholm. “I’ve always been interested in science communication, and this is a great platform for communicating important science to a broad, diverse, and truly global audience.”
Not surprisingly, Ronholm has already shown she is a skilled communicator. Her Q&A on food safety in the time of COVID-19 in the Reporter last month has already attracted 25,000 readers.
Large-scale farming often uses antibiotics to promote growth and prevent diseases in healthy animals. But humans are unwittingly exposed to those same antibiotics – and the drug-resistant bacteria bred in the crowded conditions of modern farms – through partially digested drugs in the fertilizer we use on crops and in the consumption of meat and dairy which can contain resistant bacteria.
As a result, bacterial pathogens capable of infecting humans are developing antibiotic resistance at an alarming rate. A report published today by the World Health Organization says that global data points to “a worrying number of bacterial infections are increasingly resistant to the medicines at hand to treat them.”
Like WHO officials, Ronholm is concerned by the trend. And she wants to change it.
“I’ve always wanted to work with pathogens, but my focus on eliminating antibiotics from agriculture comes from a place of wanting to help humanity deal with one of the major problems that it will face in the next decade,” Ronholm says. “I think antibiotic resistance is definitely one of the top three problems facing humanity over the next 10 years.”
According to Ronholm, internationally, about 80 per cent of the antibiotics that are produced are used in agriculture, specifically in highly concentrated animal husbandry practices. “Antibiotic usage is now essential to agriculture as we know it,” she says, “and despite dire medical warnings of antibiotic resistance, antibiotics cannot be banned from agricultural practices without consequences, namely decreases in productivity and animal welfare.”
Healthy gut, healthy animal
In simple terms, Ronholm studies the bacteria that live in the guts of farm animals. More specifically, she studies livestock microbiomes – the trillions of microorganisms that live in animals’ intestinal tracts. These microorganisms, mostly bacteria, are critical to the health and wellbeing of the animals that produce much of our food. She hypothesizes that healthy microbiomes will help animals thrive and protect from infection naturally, without antibiotics.
“My research group aims to understand and attempt to optimize the microbiome of food producing animals for increased resistance to infection and increased productivity,” says Ronholm. “To do this we study the interactions that take place between bacterial pathogens and the commensal bacteria that compose the microbiome of the animal.”
Part of her work involves comparing the differences in the microbiome of animals in the same environments that succumb to infection and those that do not. “Bacteria present in the
microbiome of animals that are highly resistant to infections are isolated and we attempt to make anti-infective probiotics tailored to specific species of agricultural animals,” says Ronholm.
“If our work is successful, we will make the use of antibiotics in agriculture redundant, and antibiotics can be reserved for use in human medicine.”
Acquiring a scientist’s skillset
Ronholm is quick to credit the colleagues and mentors who have helped her over the course of her career.
“I’ve been the recipient of some great mentorship over the years,” she says. “During my first post-doctoral fellowship at McGill [from 2012-2014], is when I really had the opportunity to begin to learn the skillsets required for being an independent scientist, and this experience really made running my own lab conceivable. This was under Dr. Lyle Whyte’s guidance – he still lets me call him with questions. During this time, I shared an office with Dr. Haley Sapers – who now holds a cross appointment between the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ve always found her devotion to science inspirational.
“Throughout my career Dr. Jeff Farber (University of Guelph) has encouraged me to focus on food borne pathogens, since there’s still a lot of work to be done here. We are currently co-editing a book together,” she says.