Frozen doom? Antibiotic-resistant superbug genes found in the Arctic

In an extremely worrying development, genes relating to one of the most antibiotic resistant superbugs known to mankind have been found in the soil of the high Arctic, a remote and largely inhospitable corner of the world.

The New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1 genes (blaNDM-1) were first identified when a Swedish patient of Indian origin, who traveled to India in 2008, presented at a Delhi hospital. The genes were then detected in surface water on Delhi streets in 2010.

In a shock development, they have now been unearthed in the soil in Svalbard, Norway, high up in the Arctic Circle, 12,870km away from the Indian city, and how they got there is a profound mystery.

DNA was extracted from 40 soil samples at eight locations in Svalbard and a total of 131 antibiotic resistant genes were found. The New Delhi superbug was present in over 60 percent of the samples analyzed. The impact of antibiotic-resistant bacteria cannot be overstated, regardless of the lack of a coherent, international strategy at present.

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“Antimicrobial resistance is as big a danger to humanity as climate change or warfare. That’s why we need an urgent global response,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the World Economic Forum.

In the future, surgeries may become far riskier and rapidly-evolving superbugs could overwhelm humanity’s medical defences. Current estimates suggest antibiotic resistant bugs could kill up to 10 million people per year by 2050 unless a dramatic shift in international policy is enacted, antibiotic use is curtailed at least partially, and global sanitation, particularly in the developing world, is greatly increased.

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Poor sanitation in the developing world helps the bugs spread far and wide even to remote, “sanitary” parts of the globe such as the Arctic Circle. The current working theory for how the genes ended up so far north is that they were brought there either by migratory birds or human visitors.

The inappropriate use of antibiotics to fight infections in humans on which they have absolutely no effect, like viruses, and overuse in livestock production which enters the food chain and the surrounding environment through runoff have been identified as two of the biggest problems that need to be tackled along with poor sanitation.

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“What humans have done through excess use of antibiotics is accelerate the rate of evolution, creating resistant strains that never existed before,” David Graham, a professor of ecosystems engineering at Newcastle University, who led the research team in Svalbard, explained.

“Local strategies can only do so much – we must think more globally,” Graham added.“The problem will be political.”

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