Antibiotic Resistance Goes Down the Tubes, In a Bad Way

The Duluth wastewater treatment plant.

Scientists, doctors, hospitals and the rest of the human race are in an arms race that is being waged every day, but few of us are even aware of it. All around the world, we’re fighting with everything we’ve got while the enemy continues to build new and improved defenses. It might not be long at all before our traditional offense becomes useless.

I’m talking about the world’s ongoing battle with antibiotic resistant bacteria. For thousands of years, people have been using natural antibiotics to fight infections and in the past hundred, we’ve amped up the power hundreds of times over with the invention of penicillin and more modern drugs.

The problem is that every now and then, there is going to be a bacterium that has some weird mutation that renders a particular type of medicine useless on it. If it grows, spreads and propagates, it can create an entire community of resistant bacteria not only by multiplying, but by trading its genes with other bacteria. If this continues to happen, eventually this one example is going to get out and meet up with others who have similar mutations and pretty soon you have a superbug that no antibiotics can kill.

It’s already happening in the world’s hospitals, but you don’t have to contact a superbug to help them spread.

One of the ways this process can happen is through regular medical treatments. Say you have strep throat and the doctor gives you a strong antibiotic. That drug not only kills the harmful bacteria, but also some of the good guys. All it takes is a few of them – bad or good – to survive and get shipped out through your body’s own waste management system for resistance to spread. Because as we know from Finding Nemo, all drains lead to the ocean.

Now, a new study from the University of Minnesota is showing that this can happen from even the best waste treatment facilities. As part of a graduate class, students took samples from multiple points along the St. Louis River leading to the city of Duluth, as well as past the city in Lake Superior, in the city’s harbor and from its waste management plant. The site was perfect for this experiment because Duluth has one of the best waste management facilities available – a tertiary system that goes an extra step than most by using mixed media filter to remove additional particles of bacteria and nutrients after the typical process removes solids and biological matter.

Sites where the samples were taken.

Additionally, the St. Louis River leading to the port city and the lake beyond are pristine. The surface waters contain almost no contaminants or bacteria, meaning that even the lowest levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be measured. At most other sites, the other contaminants can drown out the small indications the students were searching for.

What the Duluth area looks like. It's the furthest southwest tip of Lake Superior just north of the Wisconsin border.

The class took the samples and tested them for several things. First, they looked for three genetic sequences that are known to cause resistance to tetracycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic used for many different applications in today’s society. They looked for the genetic material that is known to help pieces of DNA jump from bacterium to bacterium, potentially spreading this resistance. And finally, they looked for DNA of microbial species unique to human shit.

Hey, we all have our own intestinal bacteria.

The results weren’t promising. Though test sites away from the water treatment plant contained no traceable amounts of any of these, the sites closest to the plant had higher levels, and the water from the plant itself had 20 times as much of all of the above-mentioned DNA material.

This indicates that we should be aware of the possibility that water treatment plants can create incubation pools for the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. Sure, the levels were low and many other sources contribute much more dangerous potential, such as agricultural activity and industrial wastewater. But this was the best case scenario. Other plants not as thorough as Duluth’s may be doing more to help the spread of antibiotic resistance than anyone previously thought possible.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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