Remote High Arctic of Norway Now Invaded by Superbugs

Researchers are slowly discovering that there is no region too faraway or remote that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cannot reach.

The rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria, called superbugs, is a troublesome phenomenon that has left scientists aghast. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the dangers these strains now carry include pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and skin infections.

Even more troublesome is the fact that these superbugs are now showing up in even the most remote locations on Earth. One of those locations is the remote High Arctic of Norway in a region called Svalbard.

No region too remote for superbugs

According to a University of Kansas (UK) geologist, working in the faraway region, the worrisome microbes have now been spotted there too.

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Jennifer Roberts, professor and chair of geology at KU, was actually in the process of investigating the microbial geochemistry and release of methane of the melting permafrost. However, the soil samples she collected revealed the existence of these dangerous superbugs

"The study offered a good opportunity to test soil samples for antibiotic genes with the hypothesis that Svalbard was such a remote and isolated place, we wouldn't find any evidence of such genes," Roberts said.

"In contrast, we found quite a few including superbug antibiotic-resistant genes like the New Delhi gene, which first emerged in India not very long ago. This was a surprise -- the genes we found clearly had a short transfer time between being discovered in India and our group detecting them in the Arctic only a few years later."

In total, Roberts and colleagues from the United Kingdom and China found the presence of a shocking 131 antibiotic-resistant genes. This was particularly troublesome as there are not many pathways for the superbugs to reach the Arctic.

"They likely originated from pathogens that were exposed multiple times to different types of antibiotics -- that's how we get these acutely antibiotic-resistant strains, where they persist even despite the use of 'last-resort' treatments," Roberts said.

Roberts argues that the strains may have come from human waste from people staying at the nearby research base. Other possible pathways may have originated from animals, such as nesting birds and foxes, that may have had access to bacteria-filled water sources. 

Water sources connected to wastewater sources are often responsible for spreading dangerous superbugs because these pathogens travel in water through feces and then die. However, when they do so they release free genetic materials into the water that do not easily degrade.

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Other animals then exposed to the wastewater pick up the material and all their antibiotic-resistance and continue to spread them.

Native or Foreign?

In order to determine which strains were native to the land and which were foreign, Roberts develop a benchmark for antibiotic-resistant genes. Much to her dismay, most of the strains were found not to be naturally occurring in Svalbard.

Roberts explained that the team's worrisome discovery shows that multidrug antibiotic resistance is now "global in nature." As such, the researcher said that we need a much more careful approach and management of antibiotic use as well as improved wastewater treatment worldwide.

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"Our human and animal use of antibiotics can have impacts that are beyond ourselves and beyond our local communities -- they are global," she said.

"It's really important for us to start thinking of water system management and antibiotics use in ways that are global -- and to start reducing and controlling some of the spread that is clearly not controlled at the moment."

The study is published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International.

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