Govt backs robotics research to find resistant bacteria in pig faeces

Robots will allow animal testing to be done on a massive scale

The government is backing research into the use of robots to identify bacteria in pig and chicken faeces on a massive scale. 

Australian Pork Limited (APL) last week week announced it had received $1.3 million of federal grant funding for the project, which will make testing for animal bugs at a herd, farm and national level cheaper, faster and far more accurate.

It is expected that more comprehensive testing of livestock will result in more informed decisions concerning superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.

“It’s kind of like the difference between an ad hoc poll asking one question of 1000 Australians, or the ABS census covering 24 million people. With bacteria it’s a bit like that. A lot of the time we just do one bug from a herd and say we found this bacteria or resistance. It means nothing when you have a million pigs in a herd,” Dr Sam Abraham, a researcher from Murdoch University told Computerworld.

“That’s where we want to use robots. It’s about increasing the numbers so we can make more informed decisions. Instead of doing one or two bacteria, we can do thousands and thousands.”

Dr Sam Abraham and Dr Mark O'Dea with one of the lab robots
Dr Sam Abraham and Dr Mark O'Dea with one of the lab robots

The four year project – involving Murdoch University, AgriFutures Australia, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and the University of Adelaide – involves the development of a number of robotic processes.

Laboratory robots will be trained to place samples onto agar dishes, use image and spacial recognition to identify the different bacteria colonies growing on them, and then isolate and extract different types.

“Instead of a human eye looking at it, we’ll use image recognition to look at the bacteria colonies on an agar plate. And from that you can use algorithms, and train them on different types, say E.coli or salmonella. Once you’ve trained them, the robot gets very accurate,” Abraham explained.

“Then you use the liquid handling robot and instead of using humans to pick it, robotic hands can pick those colonies with precision. And then from there you can then process and start screening.”

The investigators will work closely with technology providers including Tecan Australia, ThermoFisher Scientific and Illumina, to develop the process.

Bullish on benefits

Once developed the robotic processing will be applied to demonstrate and monitor the low antimicrobial resistance (AMR) status of Australian farm produce.

AMR is the ability of a microbe to resist the effects of medication previously used to treat them.

"Minimising the development of resistance in livestock and companion animals is an important priority for industry. Australia is a global leader in minimising risks of AMR spreading, due to the foresight of the government with industry not permitting the use of several antibiotic classes in livestock," said deputy prime minister and minister for agriculture and water resources, Barnaby Joyce.

"The project will help monitor on-farm control measures to reduce the presence of antimicrobial resistant organisms across pork and chicken meat industries, with the potential for the project to be used as a model in other animal sectors and for ongoing surveillance,” he added.

The ability to show more conclusive evidence for low AMR rates would prove a benefit to local farmers, said Australian Pork Limited CEO, Andrew Spencer

"The outcome of this project will enable industry to provide hard evidence to back claims and to show leadership credentials, which in an AMR aversive world will be an important point of differentiation," he said.

Break away from the herd

The technology developed during the project will be transferred to livestock testing laboratories involved in animal disease control across Australia, researchers said.

The robotic processes could be applied to other animals including humans, Abraham explained.

“With cats and dogs not much work has been done with carriage resistance. A lot of the work is ad hoc. There’s limited research because there’s not a lot of funding. There’s no cat and dog industry!” he said.

“Yet some of the resistant bacteria in cats and dogs is coming from humans. We give a lot of our bugs to our furry friends. We could look at diseases spreading through cats and dogs, and those that are coming from humans particularly.”