Multi-drug resistance gene detected in one of Earth’s few ‘unspoiled’ regions

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The detection of blaNDM-1, an antibiotic-resistant gene (ARG), has been confirmed in arctic soil samples taken from one of the few lasting ‘pristine’ regions on Earth, the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard (Norway).

The study, published in Environmental International, was a collaborative team effort with researchers from the Universities of Newcastle (UK), York (UK), Kansas (KS, USA) and the Chinese Academy of Science in Xiamen, with funding from the UK Natural Environmental Research Council, alongside other agencies.

“Polar regions are among the last presumed pristine ecosystems on Earth, providing a platform for characterizing pre-antibiotic era background resistance against which we could understand rates of progression of antibiotic resistance ‘pollution’,” commented environmental engineer Professor Graham (Newcastle University) who has spent 15 years studying the spread of antibiotic resistance globally, within our environment.

“But less than 3 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.”

The blaNDM-1 gene confers multi-drug resistance (MDR) in a range of bacteria to antibiotics such as powerful, last-line carbapenems. Originally identified in New Delhi, in urban Indian clinical settings, the reported findings of blaNDM-1 8000 miles away in Kongsfjorden adds to fears of worldwide spreading resistance.

The team believe the dissemination of these ARGs is likely to result from the feces of wildlife such as birds, as well as human visitors.

“Through the overuse of antibiotics, fecal releases and contamination of drinking water, we have consequentially speeded-up the rate at which superbugs might evolve.”

A total of 131 ARGs were detected in analyses of DNA extracts found in 40 soil samples across eight locations in Kongsfjorden region.

“The resistance genes detected were associated with nine major antibiotic classes, including aminoglycosides, macrolides and β-lactams, which are used to treat many infections. As an example, a gene that confers MDR in tuberculosis was found in all cores, whereas blaNDM-1 was detected in more than 60% of the soil cores in the study. This finding has huge implications for global antibiotic resistance spread,” warns Graham. “A clinically important ARG originating from South Asia is clearly not ‘local’ to the Arctic.”

“Clearly, improved antibiotic stewardship in medicine and agriculture is crucial, but understanding how resistance transmission occurs through water and soils is also critical. We contend that improved waste management and water quality on a global scale is a key step.” concluded lead author, Dr Clare McCann (Newcastle University).

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Sources: McCann C, Christingen B, Roberts J et al. Understanding drivers of antibiotic resistance genes in High Arctic soil ecosystems. Environ. Int. (2019); www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2019-01/nu-gf012319.php

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