News / Health

Gene-Swapping Soil Bacteria Harbor Antibiotic Resistance

Scanning electron micrograph of the Pseudomonas bacteria, one of several harmless bacteria found to harbor resistance genes identical to those found in disease-causing bacteria, undated (Research Center for Auditory and Vestibular Studies at Washington Un
Scanning electron micrograph of the Pseudomonas bacteria, one of several harmless bacteria found to harbor resistance genes identical to those found in disease-causing bacteria, undated (Research Center for Auditory and Vestibular Studies at Washington Un
As drug-resistant infections become an increasingly serious threat worldwide, new research show the problem may be spreading right under our feet.
 
A new study in the journal Science shows that disease-causing germs and harmless bacteria in the soil are exchanging genes that make them resistant to antibiotics — a finding that may have implications for the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock.
 
Antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria — the kind that make people sick — is one of the most serious problems in medicine today.
 
“It’s scary the number of pathogens now for which there are either very few or no drugs available to treat them,” says Gautam Dantas, study co-author and Washington University immunologist.
 
Swapping genes
 
The bacteria that cause tuberculosis, skin infections, food poisoning and other diseases become resistant to antibiotics either through mutations in their genetic material or by swapping genes with other bacteria.
 
According to Dontas, even completely different species can swap gene-carrying DNA.
 
“Bacteria as different as, say, you and I are to a plant, are still able to exchange DNA,” he says.

Identical genes

While researchers have long known that dirt is teeming with both harmless and deadly bacteria ready to exchange genes, they didn't know for sure what was happening.
 
But after analyzing 11 different soil samples, Dontas and his colleagues found about 100 different antibiotic resistance genes.
 
“Out of those 100 or so genes, seven of them had exactly the same DNA sequence as antibiotic-resistance genes that have been found in a whole bunch of pretty deadly pathogens from around the world," says Dontas, explaining that they cannot yet tell whether the genes came from the pathogens first and jumped to the soil bacteria or vice versa.

“But I think either scenario is plausible and either scenario, as far as we’re concerned, is scary,” he adds.

Food animals

Dontas says doctors know that over-using antibiotics for patients is helping to increase antibiotic resistance.
 
“What this work says is that we need to now also consider what happens when we dump antibiotics into food animals,” he says.
 
On many farms worldwide, antibiotics are routinely given to cows, pigs and chickens to prevent disease and help them grow. According to some figures, more antibiotics are used for healthy animals than for sick people, and the drugs often end up in the soil through the animals’ manure. Dontas says the new study shows soil has the potential to spawn or harbor resistance that can jump to human pathogens.
 
“This is not a distinct habitat," he says. "These transfers can occur, so practices in one environment are going to impact the other environment.”
 
Limited risk
 
The Animal Health Institute, which represents livestock drug makers, says antibiotics break down quickly in manure and in soil, and that regulators consider that risk before they approve the drugs. The industry group also notes that antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, so assessing whether its use in livestock has any additional impact would require further study.
 
While drug makers support regulatory efforts to eliminate the role of antibiotics in the growth of healthy animals, industry-wide eradication of antibiotics, they say, would have worse implications for public health, as it would only increase the number of sick animals in the food supply.

You May Like

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Factitious from: Planet earth
September 03, 2012 9:07 PM
It's absurd to overly-discouraging "abuse" of antibiotics in humans, ostensibly to prevent resistance, while inviting it by feeding the stuff to livestock by the ton, not for actual disease, but for prophylaxis, or just speed weight gain. The situation is just reckless. They even treat turf grasses on golf courses with antibiotics.

Rules that make sense, instead of rules that benefit the drug and food industries at the expense of human health, are long overdue.

by: Dr Edo McGowan from: Carpinteria CA
September 01, 2012 2:05 AM
Here is something that warrants much more discussion, i.e., the diminution of viable drugs because of growing resistance. The pharmaceutical industry is disinclined to venture into new antibiotics while medicine (both human and animal) is running out of existing drugs because the bugs are gaining increased resistance. I have a great respect for those in veterinary medicine and was married to one of the faculty in the vet school at UC Davis. But a considerable load of antibiotics goes into feed and not necessarily for treatment of infections. But that is not my main point of this comment. One of the principal mechanisms augmenting the spread of resistance comes from the nation's inadequately designed sewer plants and the inadequate water quality standards. Thus these sewer plants are spewing out industrial volumes of these resistant organisms. Sewer plants actually generate these bugs. The Wastewater Research Division, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, Ohio back in the late 1970s did a fairly robust study demonstrating this, see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC241834/pdf/aem00183-0119.pdf. At the same time the US/EPA was promoting the land application of sewage sludge onto America's farmland as a beneficial and benign enterprise. The study discussing the fact that sewer plants generated antibiotic resistance was removed from the Agency's data base, evidently for political reasons. It would not look good for a "benign" practice to be shown to actually be spreading resistant organisms across the nation's farmland. That study, however, documented that wastewater, treated or untreated, was and is a primary contributor of bacteria to the aquatic ecosystem, hence sewer sludge applied to land would follow. The removed EPA study did note, however, that several prior studies had been conducted which demonstrated that significant numbers of multiple drug-resistant coliforms were released to rivers, bays, bathing beaches, and coastal canals by effluent from sewer plants. Such waters were contaminated by bacteria capable of transferring drug resistance. Later studies working with antibiotic resistant genes would demonstrate that these genes were now found in the nation's drinking water. The issue was of great concern since there was the potential to transfer of antibiotic resistance to a pathogenic species and thence to humans. One must remember that of the longer rivers in the U.S, one city's sewage becomes the next down-river city's drinking water. There was nothing wrong with the 1970s study except it was a an inconvenient truth. It started as a doctoral dissertation and thus needed to pass through doctoral committee clearance, it was proposed to be released in a peer reviewed journal and thus had to be cleared internally by scientific committees within the EPA, and it had to pass peer review for the journal. It passed all these checks and thus there was nothing wrong with the study, yet you will not find any trace of it within the entire US/EPA data base.

Well, that said, we are losing the contest with antibiotic resistant pathogens and contamination of our water supply is one of the principal issues but it is an issue that is fraught with political bumbling, sleight of hand, and political coverup. Those who sell bottled water, may however see this as a boon.

by: Veterinarian from: Iowa
August 31, 2012 1:11 PM
This is another case of a researcher making claims that are not supported by the data in his study. He couldn't get the claims about antibiotic use in animals through the peer review process - they don't show up in his paper - so he tries to make a splash in the lay press. Antibiotics are not dumped into animals, in fact as a veterinarian I have the luxury of being able to do microbiological testing and epidemiology to determine which antibiotics to use and the best strategy for use to protect both animal health and public health.

by: Mike from: California
August 30, 2012 9:16 PM
It should not surprise anyone that an industry trade groups would deny any connection between the overuse of inappropriate drugs on healthy farm animals and drug-resistant pathogens. Contrary to the industry mouth-piece, scientists report drug compounds in California's coastal waters EVEN AFTER passing through waste-water treatment plants. Many drugs are quite stable and persist in the environment. That's the science.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs