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Antibiotic-resistant genes found in one of the most remote places on Earth

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February 7, 2019

Researchers found antibiotic-resistant genes in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean and one of the most remote places on Earth. They said the discovery confirms the spread of superbug genes to the High Arctic and has implications for the global spread of antibiotic resistance.

“Increasing antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis with growing evidence that society may soon enter an era where our most critical antibiotics cease to be effective. While efforts are underway to reduce [antibiotic resistance] via improved antibiotics stewardship, local resistance continues to expand in many parts of the world, often becoming global very quickly,” Clare M. McCann, PhD, MSc, research associate in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University in England, and colleagues wrote.

“Most worryingly, multidrug-resistant genotypes are undergoing especially rapid geographical spread. For example, possible ‘superbugs’ that express New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1 protein (coded by blaNDM-1), first reported in India in 2008, have now become global.”

"Despite such trends,” they added, “we have limited understanding of the main drivers of [antibiotic resistance] spread, especially the relative role of the environmental pathways at local and global scales.”

The Artic 
Researchers speculated that antibiotic-resistant genes may have been transported to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the High Arctic, through the feces of birds or other wild animals.
Source: Adobe Stock.

In an effort to discover more about what drives the spread of antibiotic resistance, McCann and colleagues collected and analyzed soil samples in the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard. According to the researchers, the region is an ideal location for such studies because of its remoteness, lack of agriculture or industry, small human populations and temperatures cold enough to preserve DNA.

Results from the soil samples showed traces of 131 different antibiotic-resistant genes that are responsible for the spread of superbugs, McCann and colleagues reported. The list of genes included the blaNDM-1 gene, first detected in urban India, roughly 5,000 miles from Svalbard.

“This finding has implications for global [antibiotic resistance] spread because blaNDM-1 is clearly not ‘local,’ providing evidence of [antibiotic resistance gene] migration at international scales,” they wrote.

According to the study, McCann and colleagues believe the gene may have been transported to the region in the feces of migratory birds and other wildlife, or even by human beings. They said it is highly unlikely that antibiotic use has any direct effect on antibiotic-resistant genes in places like Kongsfjorden.

“This observation is noteworthy because our study used samples collected in 2013, less than 3 years after the first detection of blaNDM-1 in surface seeps in urban India,” they concluded. “Although levels of blaNDM-1 are comparatively localized in Kongsfjorden ... and pose no health threat, its detection reinforces how rapidly [antibiotic resistance] can globalize.

“Overall, results here underscore the value of characterizing remote locations with minimal ‘impact,’ ie, where putative autochthonous antibiotic-resistant genes can be implied, contributing to the quantification of global antibiotic resistance proliferation.”– by Caitlyn Stulpin

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.