KEY POINTS

  • Study links environmental pollution to antibiotic resistance
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause difficult-to-treat diseases in humans
  • Certain agricultural activities promote resistance to drugs of certain bacteria 

Some antibiotic resistance cases could be due to pollution. This is what a team of researchers indicated in a new study that sought to establish correlation between the condition and the environment.   

In the study published in the journal Microbial Biotechnology, the team of scientists led by Jesse C. Thomas IV, an alumnus of the College of Public Health and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, indicated that there appears to be evidence to suggest that certain antibiotic resistance cases are caused by pollution. The researchers came up with this idea after noticing that certain soils with heavy metals contained a higher number of bacteria hosts with antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs). 

For the study, Thomas and his colleagues obtained soil samples from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site that’s located close to Aiken, S.C. They then used genomic analysis to determine the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes in the bacterial hosts present in the samples. 

The bacterial hosts the researchers found in the samples included Streptomyces, Bradyrhizobium, Mycobacterium and Acidobacteriaoceae and they contained  ARGs for drugs like polymyxin, bacitracin, and vancomycin. They also had a strong defense against heavy metals (copper, arsenic, zinc and cadmium) and many other antibiotics. 

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria and other germs develop the ability to resist drugs designed to kill them. When these antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect humans, the conditions they bring could be very difficult or impossible to treat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In most cases, bacteria develop resistance to certain drugs when humans overuse antibiotics. Many people tend to take antibiotics even if they are not the appropriate treatment, forgoing doctors’ orders. The CDC said that about one-third or one-half of antibiotic use in humans is inappropriate.  

The main takeaway from the new study is that certain agricultural activities and the combustion of fossil fuels lead to pollution, which could then lead to antibiotic resistance of certain bacteria and germs in the environment. As such, it is important to examine the environment to mitigate the proliferation of ARGs and their transmission to humans.

“We need a better understanding of how bacteria are evolving over time. This can impact our drinking water and our food and eventually our health,” Thomas, who now serves as a biologist at the CDC, said in a press release

Bacteria Bacteria, as seen under a microscope. Photo: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay