‘Superbug genes’ found in one of Earth's last ‘pristine’ Arctic wildernesses, scientists warn

Finding has ‘huge implications for global antibiotic resistance spread’

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Monday 28 January 2019 01:22 GMT
Health Secretary Matt Hancock: 'Antimicrobial resistance is a mission critical agenda for the world'

Bacteria with the ability to withstand some of humanity’s most powerful antibiotics of last resort have been discovered in the Arctic, suggesting even the world’s last “pristine” environments are being colonised by superbugs.

Soil bacteria samples taken in the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard have tested positive for drug resistance genes that were first observed in India in 2008 and rarely seen outside of hospitals.

The spread of the genes, known as blaNDM-1, are under close surveillance worldwide as they allow bacteria to resist a class of antibiotics known as the carbapenems, among other drugs of last resort.

Newcastle University researchers said the “pollution” was likely caused by migratory bird droppings or human visitors to the region, with bacteria able to share bits of their genetic code with neighbouring species.

“Polar regions are among the last presumed pristine ecosystems on Earth” said Professor David Graham, of Newcastle University.

“But less than three years after the first detection of the blaNDM-1 gene in the surface waters of urban India we are finding them thousands of miles away in an area where there has been minimal human impact.

“Encroachment into areas like the Arctic reinforces how rapid and far-reaching the spread of antibiotic resistance has become, confirming solutions to antibiotic resistance must be viewed in global rather than just local terms.”

It follows dire warnings from health secretary Matt Hancock at the World Economic Forum, that antimicrobial resistance is a “global health emergency” more important than climate change or war.

The evolution of bacterial defences is being supercharged by inappropriate use of antibiotics, often for viral infections where they have no effect, and use in livestock production where they spread into the environment through runoff.

The latest findings, published in the journal Environment International, used 40 soil samples from eight locations and detected more than 131 antibiotic resistance genes.

These were resistant to some of the major classes of antibiotics, which are used around the world to clear up infections and make minor surgery safe.

“As an example, a gene that confers multi-drug resistance in tuberculosis was found in all cores, whereas blaNDM-1 was detected in more than 60 per cent of the soil cores in the study,” Professor Graham added.

“This finding has huge implications for global antibiotic resistance spread. A clinically important antibiotic resistance gene originating from South Asia is clearly not ‘local’ to the Arctic.”

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