The role of the natural environment in the emergence of antibiotic resistance

The hospital superbug MRSA

It’s Will again with my second post!

Together with a group of co-authors I have just had a paper accepted by Lancet ID on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in the natural environment.

It highlights the fact that development of resistance is not just a product of human use of antibiotics but is a natural process that has evolved over millions if not billions of years. A recent New England Journal of Medicine leader highlighted this fact,

“Indeed, widespread antibiotic resistance was recently discovered among bacteria found in underground caves that had been geologically isolated from the surface of the planet for 4 million years. Remarkably, resistance was found even to synthetic antibiotics that did not exist on earth until the 20th century. These results underscore a critical reality: antibiotic resistance already exists, widely disseminated in nature, to drugs we have not yet invented”.

The diversity of resistance mechanisms that already exists in the environmental metagenome (total genetic diversity represented by all bacteria in the environment) suggests that we are unlikely to avoid emergence of resistance in the long term. However what is important is that we reduce the rate of amplification and transfer of resistance genes to clinically important pathogens. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a process that doesn’t occur in animals or plants, bacteria are able to transfer genetic material from their genome or accessory mobile elements such as plasmids via a variety of mechanisms including conjugation, transduction and transformation.  My research, and the subject of the review paper, is about how use of antibiotics in farming and pollution by antibiotic residues and other compounds such as biocides and detergents is likely to be driving selection for antibiotic resistant organisms in the environment.

Here is a link to a Sunday Observer article on my work published a couple of years ago.


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