Antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs) have been found in the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard – one of the most remote (and one of the last "pristine") places on Earth, a study published in the journal Environmental International reveals.
Strains of bacteria carrying the gene blaNDM-1 were first discovered in medical clinics in New Delhi, India, back in 2008. Two years later the gene was detected in Delhi’s surface water. In the years that followed, it's popped up in more than 100 countries, sometimes in the form of new variants.
Now, an analysis of soil samples taken from Kongsfjorden reveals just how far-reaching the antibiotic crisis is. In total, 40 soil cores were taken from eight locations and the team found 131 ARGs.
So, how exactly did they get there?
BlaNDM-1 and other potentially harmful ARGs are carried by humans and other animals, where they lurk in the gut. Scientists at Newcastle University, UK, who led the research, believe these ARGs are finding themselves in Arctic soils on the back of birds, humans, and other wildlife brought to the area via their fecal matter.
This is problematic. The spread of these antibiotic-resistant genes (to whatever destination that might be) has been named one of the World Health Organization's top concerns because they so frequently target Carbapenems and other "last resort" antibiotics – ie drugs used only after all other options have failed.
"Polar regions are among the last presumed pristine ecosystems on Earth, providing a platform for characterizing pre-antibiotic era background resistance against which we could understand rates of progression of AR 'pollution'," team leader David Graham, an environmental engineer at Newcastle University with 15 years' experience researching the environmental transmission of antibiotic resistance, said in a statement.
"Encroachment into areas like the Arctic reinforces how rapid and far-reaching the spread of antibiotic resistance has become, confirming solutions to AR must be viewed in global rather than just local terms."
From medicine to agriculture, and as a result of over-eager antibiotic prescription rates and intensive farming, humans have amplified a problem (antibiotic resistance) that occurs naturally. Now, instead of gaining resistance to antibiotics gradually and only after many, many generations, bacteria is mutating to defy antibiotics at a never-before-seen pace, creating a situation where scientists are struggling to keep up.
"What humans have done through excess use of antibiotics on global scales is accelerate the rate of evolution, creating a new world of resistant strains that never existed before," Graham added.
"Through the overuse of antibiotics, faecal releases and contamination of drinking water, we have consequentially speeded up the rate at which superbugs might evolve.
"For example, when a new drug is developed, natural bacteria can rapidly adapt and can become resistant; therefore very few new drugs are in the pipeline because it simply isn't cost-effective to make them."