Researchers have found that microbes from the thawing soil of Svalbard have anti-biotic resistant genes, according to research they published in the journal Environment International.
The researchers were shocked at the find – they figured that Svalbard would be so remote that these genes wouldn’t show up, so the the thawing soil would be a bit of an opportunity to study microbes that didn’t have them.
Instead, they found genes like the New Delhi gene, which had only been discovered a few years ago in India.
The New Delhi gene gives microbes a resistance to carbapenem – which is a last resort antibiotic that is used when nothing else works. This is just one of 13 different genes for antibiotic resistance that the researchers found.
So how did the genes get there?
“Some of the sites where we found the New Delhi strain of gene aren’t terribly far from the main research base, so there’s a possibility human waste was involved. We also observed colonies of nesting birds in low-elevation places, like small lakes and other sources of open water during maximum thaw, and that was where we saw the highest concentrations of these genes.
“We also detected them in places that didn’t have open water but had a lot of small animals like foxes, and you can trace a vector between a watering hole or small lake where you have lots of birds and small mammals going to drink and then picking up whatever genes are there,” Jennifer Roberts, professor and chair of geology at KU, and one of the authors of the paper explained in a statement.
So does this mean that the microbes themselves are from the rest of the world?
Not quite. Single celled organisms are pretty good at taking advantage of lateral gene transfer – which means that if one of them dies, its genetic material is released into the water and that can then be picked up by other single celled organisms, complete with any resistances they may have.
“It’s not that we have some kind of robust community of E. coli or other pathogen living in the surface waters in the Arctic,” Roberts said. “Instead, some antibiotic-resistant pathogen was brought in from outside sources — and now that resistance has been dispersed as genes are picked up by other organisms that were already populous in the environment.”
This is fascinating to me – because it shows how much of an unexpected impact we can have on the world.
It shows how quickly superbugs can develop – and spread across the world. The New Delhi gene is just a few years old, and yet here it is in one of the most remote locations on Earth.
It is not good news of course, because many microbes aren’t particularly the sorts of things which can and will kill us.
The fact that these microbes can pick up resistances from each other is just one more facet researchers have to deal with in their race to develop new antibiotics for new superbugs.
But there is still room for wonder in how fast and far these genes can spread.