Tag Archives: superbugs

China’s Waterways Reveal Our Superbug Future

Somewhere on the planet, right now, there is a bacterial species quietly accumulating the genes that will turn it into the next superbug. There is still time to tackle antibiotic resistance.

By Michael Gillings, Macquarie University 
February, 2017

Antibiotics are medicines for treating infectious diseases caused by bacteria. They are one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time. They have saved my life, and probably saved yours as well. But we have used them unwisely.

We used them to treat viral infections, such as the flu, that don’t respond to antibiotics. We used them to promote growth rates in healthy agricultural animals. We have not followed instructions on how to take them properly.

These actions have serious consequences.

Bacteria have fought back; and all over the world, have become resistant to antibiotics. They do this by acquiring mutations, or by stealing genes that confer resistance to antibiotics from other bacteria.

The more we use antibiotics, the faster they become resistant. This has led to a major health crisis in the 21st century. It was recently estimated that by 2050, a total of 10 million people will die every year from antibiotic resistant infections. This is more than deaths from cancer.

The problem is so widespread that every person now carries antibiotic resistance genes in at least some of their gut bacteria or microbiome. This is not so bad because usually these bacteria do not cause disease, and they only have one or two resistance genes each. But it does lead to some unexpected and unwanted consequences.

The resistance genes in the human gut are eventually released into sewage, where they go on to pollute streams, rivers and waterways.

In a paper just published in Nature Microbiology, my colleagues and I show that antibiotic resistance genes have now become a major pollutant in estuaries, where rivers join the sea. Some estuaries in China have up to 100 million antibiotic resistance genes per gram of mud. That’s a million resistance genes in a fragment of mud that’s the size of a match head. None of these genes were there 100 years ago.

Estuaries are natural filtering points between fresh water and the ocean. They tend to accumulate pollutants, including resistance genes. This is the way the system works: human and agricultural animals excrete antibiotic resistance genes in their faeces. Sometimes this waste is released directly into rivers and streams. But even when waste does go through a waste-water treatment plant, resistance genes are often not effectively removed.

To make matters worse, many of the antibiotics used to treat humans and animals are also excreted unchanged. These molecules do not break down easily, and join the disinfectants, heavy metals and other pollutants that can be found in all urban waterways. That means bacteria in natural ecosystems get great benefits if they can pick up genes for resistance to these metals, antibiotics and disinfectants. By doing this, they gain a survival advantage in the face of human pollution.

As waste water coming from human settlements contains a complex mixture of bacteria, resistance genes and antibacterial agents, polluted waterways become a huge reactor for generating bacteria that carry multiple resistance genes. And these resistant bacteria end up in estuaries.

What’s more, the bacteria already present in the estuary mud can take up resistance genes from polluted water.

Why does this matter? Well, many food items, such as prawns, oysters, crabs and fish, are harvested from estuaries. And many of these animals feed in or live in sediment. That means there’s a direct pathway for bacteria from estuary mud to enter the human food chain. Some of these bacteria are bound to have combinations of resistance genes that have never been seen together before.

And these resistance genes could also end up in new bacteria that have never really been a health problem for humans or animals in the past. This is where a new crop of superbugs could come from. Somewhere on the planet, right now, there is a bacterial species quietly accumulating the genes that will turn it into the next superbug.

Our research was done in China, where antibiotics are often used during intensive animal production. This might mean that the situation in China could more extreme than in other parts of the world. Although, it’s important to note that most countries continue to use antibiotics in this way, or have done so in the past. And, of course, all countries use antibiotics for treating people who are unwell.

This means every waterway flowing from farms, towns or cities contains antibiotic resistance genes and antibiotics. The kind of pollution we found in China is likely to be present in every estuary that lies downstream from urban development or animal agriculture. We already suspect this is the case, because every single estuary along 4,000 kilometres of China’s coastline had similar pollution with resistance genes.

There are things we can do to lessen the potential problem. We certainly need to use antibiotics more cautiously; we need to only use the medicines for treating difficult infections, and not as food additives. We also urgently need to develop water treatment technologies that remove disinfectants, metals, antibiotics and the genes that confer resistance to these agents.

Otherwise, the next trip you take to the coast for a seafood dinner just might be your last.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Michael Gillings is a Professor of Molecular Evolution at Macquarie University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Noteworthy: antibiotics and superbugs

Photo by Iqbal Osman via Flickr, Creative Commons

Photo by Iqbal Osman via Flickr, Creative Commons

Superbugs, caused by wanton use of antibiotics, have the potential to change human civilization: by erasing the gains made in fighting bacterial disease since WWII, destroying many of our weapons against cancer, killing infants and our injured, rendering hospitals even more dangerous. The New York Times reports on superbugs in India this week. Reading it is worth your time. Below, as well, are some of the stories that we think matter, amid the torrents of information and entertainment.

This series is about boutique, not supermarket, selections. Your suggestions welcome, and invited  –  email Editor@factsandopinions.com

‘Superbugs’ Kill India’s Babies and Pose an Overseas Threat – suggested by Chris Wood

By Gardiner Harris, New York Times 

AMRAVATI, India — A deadly epidemic that could have global implications is quietly sweeping India, and among its many victims are tens of thousands of newborns dying because once-miraculous cures no longer work. …

“India’s dreadful sanitation, uncontrolled use of antibiotics and overcrowding coupled with a complete lack of monitoring the problem has created a tsunami of antibiotic resistance that is reaching just about every country in the world,” said Dr. Timothy R. Walsh, a professor of microbiology at Cardiff University…..

A 2010 discovery of a New Delhi “superbug” caused intense controversy because of fears that publicity would threaten India’s profitable medical tourism industry. Government officials have stopped some studies of the problem, Dr. Walsh said. … read the story

From F&O’s archives:

Gut bacteria linked to depression and brain health

By Clio KornUniversity of Oxford, October, 2014 

One of medicine’s greatest innovations in the 20th century was the development of antibiotics. It transformed our ability to combat disease. But medicine in the 21st century is rethinking its relationship with bacteria and concluding that, far from being uniformly bad for us, many of these organisms are actually essential for our health. … read the story

We’re all in this together

By Chris Wood, F&O NATURAL SECURITY columnist (paywall)

We’re all in this together … is not a moral sentiment. Nor is it the wooly-headed utopiate of some bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, it is a statement about biology. Nonetheless, this clearly unoriginal insight has implications for everything from agriculture to medicine to business. It should resonate across our social, inter-personal and economic realms as well.

Here’s the deal: That splendid, solitary, neurotically cultivated and over-examined individual of pop cultural celebrity, of too many moody novels, of philosophy, and more recently of Darwinian economic ideology, turns out to be just another of those enterprises’ many fantasies. In reality, we are not individuals, we are collectives. 

I’m not talking about the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ kind of collective, either (although there is truth to that). What I’m talking about is something much more like the personal ecosystem that the Peanuts character Pigpen trailed behind him through every frame in an inescapable scuffle of dust. We are, it turns out, a whole lot like Pigpen.

This realization might have been predicted ever since early Dutch scientist Anthony Leeuwenhoek directed his hand-built microscope at a drop of water and discovered an entire world of microbes: literally, ‘little life.’ Indeed, we’ve known for a while (and been trying for almost as long not to think about it) that our human bodies play host to a variety of wee beasties, from eyelash lice to stomach bacteria.

What we haven’t fully appreciated, until recently, is how much of this ‘foreign’ life is hitching a ride with us; how varied that life is; or how intimately, even essentially, involved these ‘other’ creatures are in making us, us. … log first in to read the story

 And, reaching back 19 years, here’s a magazine piece I wrote about the issue as it was emerging:

Germ Warfare

By Deborah Jones,  1995

In the war between germs and antibiotics, this much is no longer in doubt: eventually, bacteria win every battle. The only question is: how long can the cavalry keep arriving with new drugs? … 

Worry, instead, about evolution. It’s not just a neat shape-shifting game played by amoebas, monkeys and humans. Bacteria evolve too. Routed two generations ago by the discovery of antibiotics, bacteria found ways to survive. Today, time-tested and inexpensive drugs like penicillin no longer kill the bugs that cause ear and throat infections, sexually transmitted diseases, even meningitis. These bacteria have evolved and are becoming immune to our miracle medicines faster than scientists thought possible. Meanwhile, our hospitals, with high levels of antibiotics and large populations of a bacteria, have become breeding grounds for resistant strains. …read the story


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