Field of Science

Antibiotics & Agriculture Part 1: The Discovery of Growth Promoters

This story begins with Robert Stokstad, an agricultural scientist brought up on a Californian poultry farm . He had started his career fighting against malnutrition in chicks. He had found that a haemorraghic disease in chicks was in fact caused by malnutrition. He had followed this up by examining the diet of baby chicks, to work out which parts of the diet are the most essential, and which of those, if neglected could lead to disease. He was one of the first to discover that folic acid is an important component of nutrition in chicks, before people realised it’s importance for humans.

It was at Lederle pharmaceuticals, whilst working with Thomas Juke, that he made another significant discovery about the right things to feed baby chicks. He had found during his work that feeding chicks a diet of vegetables alone was not enough. In fact, many chicks would end up dying on this diet. If they were to survive, then some degree of animal protein was needed. Other people working in his field had found that adding a small amount of “sardine meal” to the mix helped this. But then in a later paper, those same researchers, Hammond and Titus, found that mixing in cow manure produced a similar effect. Yes, you read that right, there were people feeding chicks cow manure, and found that it was more healthy than feeding them a diet of just vegetables.

It was known at the time that vitamin B12 was a key factor needed for chicks to grow, and that often the vegetable diets given to these chicks did not have enough of it.  So Stokstad and Juke fed the chicks different mixtures of foods, and looked at how well they grew afterwards. One of the foods they included was a bacterium, Streptomyces aureofaciens, which they grew up and dried out and added to the feeds of the chicks. This was to work out why the cow manure turned out to be such a great dietary supplement. Stokstad knew that manure is full of bacteria, and that bacteria could produce B12. So the reason that cow manure was good for chicks was that it was a source of B12.

But Stokstad was not the sort to rule anything out. He decided to compare the potency of Streptomyces aureofaciens against B12 purified from liver extract. He found that the purified liver extract improved the growth of the chicks, nearly doubling their final weight. But when he fed the chicks Streptomyces aureofaciens , he discovered that they grew far faster and bigger than the ones fed with just the liver extract. This growth spurt was about more than vitamin B12. Streptomyces aureofaciens  was producing something else that was boosting the growth of these chicks. So what was this mysterious factor which made these chicks grow up so well ?

It was a compound known then as aureomycin, and it was amongst the first tetracycline antibiotics ever discovered. It was also one of the first antibiotic growth promoters. Other researchers were also beginning to discover the benefits of antibiotics in promoting the growth of animals. The use of antibiotics as feed additives caught on like wildfire.

One of the first to express their concerns over the growth of this industry was Robert Wrigglesworth, who in 1952 wrote a letter to the British Medical Journal
We have the prospect of more antibiotics being sold in the USA, as growth promoters for food in farm animals than are used for clinical medicine.
But at the time, these kinds of concerns were brushed aside, with some justification. So what if the bacteria that infect livestock become slightly resistant to antibiotics ? The bacteria that live within pigs and chicken don’t pose a problem to the health of people, because the only time that those aforementioned bacteria could possibly come into contact with us is after being thoroughly cooked. Right ?

 To Be Continued.....


  STOKSTAD E.L.R. & JUKES T.H. (1949). The multiple nature of the animal protein factor., The Journal of biological chemistry, PMID:

  Shane B. & Carpenter K. (1997). E. L. Robert Stokstad, Journal of Nutrition, (127) 199-201. DOI:

Wigglesworth R. (1952). Value of Organic Manures, BMJ, 1 (4772) 1357-1358. DOI:

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