“Hyper-resistant” bacteria potentially capable of evading common antibiotics have been discovered in the unforgiving land of Antarctica, according to a new study.
While the threat is not imminent, the researchers warn that they have the potential to pose some risk to global human health in the years to come – especially if Antarctica continues to be threatened by the climate crisis and environmental damage.
In a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, scientists from the University of Chile explain how they collected soil samples from the Antarctic Peninsula between 2017 to 2019. When they returned to the lab, they were surprised at the rich diversity of microorganisms found living within these harsh soils.
Among the microorganisms, genes were found that can provide resistance to multiple antibiotics and other antimicrobial substances, like copper and chlorine. The genes were found in a variety of bacteria genera, including Polaromonas, Pseudomonas, Streptomyces, Variovorax, and Burkholderia.
Worryingly, there was also evidence of genes that may allow never-before-seen mechanisms to evade antibiotics. They found bacteria of the Polaromonas group capable of pumping out enzymes with the potential to inactivate beta-lactam-type antibiotics, which are essential for treatment of various infections.
Antibiotic resistance is significantly accelerated by misuse and overuse of antibiotics. However, it is also possible for bacteria to naturally evolve antibiotic resistance mechanisms. The researchers of this latest study argue that the antibiotic resistance genes they discovered were most likely a result of the bacteria adapting to the extreme conditions of Antarctica.
Dr Andrés Marcoleta, leader of the study from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile, explains that this antibiotic resistance is held within "mobile fragments" of DNA that can be easily passed to other bacteria through horizontal gene transfer.
“The idea that these genes could eventually reach bacteria that cause infections in humans or other animals, giving them greater resistance capabilities, does not seem unreasonable," Dr Marcoleta said in a statement.
He added that this study should not spark panic – just yet. However, he highlighted how the potential threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Antarctica is becoming more likely as human activity becomes an increasing burden on the continent.
“We know that there is an increasingly frequent and massive transit of people between the Antarctic Peninsula and the rest of the world, mainly through Chile. This generates potential opportunities for contact between microorganisms that colonize or infect humans and those that naturally inhabit the soils of the white continent,” Marcoleta continued.
“[The COVID-19 pandemic] has taught us that microorganisms, and in particular pathogens, can cause effects with global reach. In this sense, it is worth asking if climate change could have an impact on the occurrence of infectious diseases,” warned Marcoleta.