Antibiotic resistance has become such a major issue right around the world that the World Health Organization now considers it a global threat. But while the problems seen in hospitals and farms are being driven by the overuse of the drugs, there has been one species of bacteria deep below the ground developing its own resistance.
Living in a cave, and having been isolated for around 4 million years, the newly discovered bacteria Paenibacillus has been found to be resistant to 18 types of antibiotics. These included drugs considered to be a “last resort” when all others fail while fighting infections in patients. The researchers suggest that this shows the evolutionary pressure to keep the genes necessary to confer resistance to a bacteria has existed for millions of years, far before their use in modern medicine.
Considering antibiotics are mostly based on compounds naturally found in nature that either kill or inhibit the growth of antibiotics, it may not be that surprising that microorganisms have already developed resistance to them. Researchers have even found resistant bacteria in the stomach of ancient South American mummies. What may be of more interest, however, is how this newly discovered bacteria is achieving its resistance.
“The diversity of antibiotic resistance and it's its prevalence in microbes across the globe should be humbling to everyone who uses these lifesaving drugs,” explained McMaster University's Gerry Wright, who co-authored the paper describing the resistant bacteria in the journal Nature Communications. “It reflects the fact that we must understand that antibiotic use and resistance go hand in hand.”
The researchers found that Paenibacillus demonstrated five novel ways to combat the antibiotics, which could be of interest. They suggest that in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the clinical setting, more knowledge about how bacteria may be able to achieve it is invaluable. It could, for example, give other researchers time to develop new drugs to combat these new avenues of resistance, years before they are ever seen in a hospital when it could prove fatal.
Isolated for millions of years 1,000 feet underground, the bacteria in question was found in the Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to its highly sensitive environment, access to the cave system is limited to only a handful or researchers, making it the perfect place to study bacteria largely untouched by human interference.
Image in text: Max Wisshak (2012)