Could pollution be main contributor to antibiotic resistance?

15 Jun 2016

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Pollution could be a major contributor to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, with a new study looking at the role waterways play in their evolution.

And one of Scotland’s busiest Scottish rivers will be examined in close detail as the new research aims to quantify the role discarded heavy metals and biological waste plays in harbouring antimicrobial resistant infections, such as MRSA and C-Difficile.

Drs Fiona Henriquez, Roderick Williams and Prof Andrew Hursthouse of The Institute of Biomedical and Environmental Health Research at University of the West of Scotland together with Dr Charles Knapp of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde will undertake the study, which could shed new light on the role historical industrial pollution has played on public health now.

Fiona Henriquez, leader of the Infection and Microbiology Research Group at the Institute in UWS, said: “Antimicrobial resistant bacteria don’t just develop as a result of prescribing antibiotics. There are a whole host of environmental factors that contribute.

“Bacteria live in our biosphere, on everything around us, and there’s an exchange of material between bacteria that can cause mutations in their genetic code. Pollutants create a harsher environment in which to thrive – and the harsher the biosphere the more bacteria have to evolve themselves to survive.

“By doing this, they build resistance to pollutants – and to the antibiotics we would use to combat infections.

“In our study, we will focus on the Clyde Estuary, which has been subject to a wide range of pollution discharges over time, taking samples to establish the biological conditions there and determine the extent of which the industrial history may lead to the development of these stubborn bacteria.”

Funded by National Environmental Research Council (NERC), the 18-month long study is the first to systematically examine the chemical stressors leading to microbial resistance in marine or freshwaters.

Dr Henriquez added: “We already know there is an increase in risk of infection for regular beachgoers, while antimicrobial resistance can also develop in microbes other than bacteria, such as parasites. The correlation of antimicrobial resistance with varied exposure to pollutants and how this chain impacts on the rest of us though has yet to be fully determined.”

A report produced by Lord O’Neill in May warned that a failure to combat antimicrobial resistance could lead to 10million deaths a year by 2050 – dragging modern medicine back into the dark ages. It warned that the over-prescription of antibiotics to humans and animals was contributing towards the development of resistant Salmonella and E.coli.

Dr Henriquez, a reader in Parasitology at UWS, says their study is an important step in the war against antimicrobial resistance.

“We have to start looking outside the box and making sure we look at all the angles rather than just focus on the prescription of antibiotics. There is a long chain of events that need to be examined – from historic industrial pollution to measuring the full impact of washing waste into our waterways.

“It is vital we take a holistic view if we are to win the battle against the bugs.”