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article image'Superbugs' found in 4-million-year-old cave

By Tim Sandle     Apr 13, 2012 in Science
Microbiologists, exploring caves in New Mexico, have found almost one hundred bacteria which are resistant to most modern antibiotics. The finding reveals important information about acquired resistance.
According to National Geographic, a team of microbiologists, exploring a four-million-year-old cave in New Mexico (the Lechuguilla cave system, located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park) have, at a depth of around 1,600 feet, discovered bacteria which are resistant to most modern antibiotic drugs. What is curious about the discovery is that the bacteria would not have had any contact with antibiotics or, indeed, with human beings.
The teams were drawn from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, United States of America.
The research team found thick layers of bacteria (called biofilms) growing on the walls of the cave. The research into the resistant properties has taken several years. Many species of bacteria were isolated (over 500), although only 93 proved to be resistant to common antibiotics.
The report by the scientists was published in the Public Library of Science and goes further to explain the isolation of the microorganisms. Given the thickness of the rock and its formation, any water which seeps into the depths of the cave would take an estimated ten thousand years, which itself accentuates the isolation of the bacteria from modern medicine.
According to Scientific American, the discovery is important because bacteria found in hospitals quickly become resistant to disease. What the research team can now study is if bacteria, isolated from contact with antibiotics, are resistant, then other mechanisms other than a simple genetic build up to antibiotics may be at play.
Gerry Wright, a chemical biologist at McMaster University in Ontario, is quoted by Time as saying "Clinical microbiologists have been perplexed for the longest time. When you bring a new antibiotic into the hospital, resistance inevitably appears shortly thereafter, within months to years. It’s still a big question: Where is this coming from. Almost no one thought to look at other bacteria, the ones that don’t necessarily cause disease."
Many microbiologists therefore suspect that non-pathogenic bacteria, not associated with people or commonly found in hospitals, are acting as a vast pool of ancient resistance genes waiting to be transferred to pathogenic bacteria. The act of transference, by contact, through viruses or absorption of genetic material, gives the harmful 'superbug' bacteria resistance.
The research will hopefully advance the understanding of antibiotic resistance and the fight against superbugs.
More about Drug resistant, Drugresistant bacteria, Caves
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