During this time of ghouls and ghastly racist costume choices, it’s never a bad idea to take stock of the fears that keep us up at night. You know, just to make sure they’re not hiding underneath the bed.
Let’s see, zombies? Existentially terrifying but implausible. The gaping and crushing void of space? Only if you’re Sandra Bullock. Clowns? Obviously macabre but almost certainly unionized into complacency.
Ooh, I got it! How about unthinking yet adaptive monsters wholly imperceptible to the human eye and able to render most every technological advance we’ve made in the past century useless? Yep. That’s a real one.
Last week, Spanish researchers Juan Jofre, Elisbet Marti and Jose Louis Balcazar, presumingly looking to win the “Most Underwhelmingly Titled Study Ever” award, released a paper called Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance Genes and Bacterial Community Composition in a River Influenced by a Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Of course, what has now become the all-too-frightening reality of medicine is that bacterial diseases are exhibiting growing resistance to the antibiotics used to treat them; the natural outcome of overexposure to what we once thought as magic bullets. And while there’s plenty of research done on the over-prescription of these drugs, relatively little has followed in the way of environmental contamination.
This study, taking it as a given that antibiotics are continuously released into our local sewage system – often as medical waste byproduct – decided to investigate the contents of a river both immediately upstream and downstream of a treatment plant.
What they found was that among eleven of the most commonly known genes believed to confer antibiotic resistance, nine such genes were found in higher quantities in the river after being exposed to wastewater effluent than before. They also found that the level of five widely-used antibiotics hardly changed between treatment of the sewage, showcasing a resistance to chemical breakdown.
What’s worse, once the team took a gander at the river’s genetic environment, they found substantial differences in the before and after microbiology of the water. These differences included the proliferation of bacterial species known to not only harbor resistance genes, but also known to transfer these genes to families of potential disease-causing bacteria. About the only good news in the entire paper is that, try as you might, no mention of the words “impending doom” could be found in the authors’ conclusions.
Kidding aside, the study, though finding that the amount of antibiotic resistance genes (ARG’s) in the river was minute, leads to pretty dreadful implications.
While hospitals have long rightly been seen as the breeding grounds for antibiotic resistance, the fact remains that our sewage plants (some 20,000 publicly owned in the U.S. alone) are essentially pouring untold amounts of ARG’s in the bacterial biosphere every day.*
Couple that with the pumping of antibiotics into our agricultural system and still continued over-prescription in our doctors’ offices, and it becomes obvious that we are morphing the microbial landscape into one that we have little way to defend ourselves against in the not-too-far future.
And no, that isn’t dramatic exaggeration. There are already germs out there resistant to all known families of antibiotics. Incurable, in so many words. And here’s the kicker. It’s only going to get worse.
Scary enough for you?
*Update: An astute comment on Reddit points out that the increase of ARG’s in the river ecosystem might not necessarily be a direct result of antibiotics left preserved in wastewater effluent; the increase rather emerging from already resistant bacteria that survive the treatment process and end up in the river. The researchers indeed take care to note both possibilities and call for more study to be done on what exactly is causing the ARG increase.
Though it doesn’t change the end result of what the researchers describe, it’s definitely worth explicitly mentioning, so apologies for not having done so in the OP.