Antibiotic Resistance Through the Air? Yes, it’s a Real Thing.

New research reveals that antibiotic resistant genes may be able to travel through the air. What does this mean for public health?

By now, most of us are well aware that our antibiotics have been so overused in medicine and in the farming industry that we are facing a future without effective antibiotics. That has precipitated the rise of so-called “superbugs“: once easily treatable infections that now pose a serious risk to human health.

What is less well understood is the mechanisms that allow bacteria to actually acquire their resistance.

Bacteria can, of course, spread their genes in the same way that we do, namely through what is essentially sexual reproduction. But bacteria also have another method of spreading genes through something called “horizontal gene transfer”. Bacteria will exploit something, say a virus, to give their genes over to another bacteria which will then be able to acquire the traits coded for by those genes.

It’s the same process that may have led to sweet potatoes being naturally genetically modified by bacteria, and it is how genes have been swapping genetic material to develop antibiotic resistance over the years.

We may assume that, absent the bacteria being physically present to transfer there genes, resistance cannot be spread. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

Antibiotic Resistance in Our Cities’ Air

When bacteria die they do something pretty extraordinary: they come apart and release their insides into the air.

Because of horizontal gene transfer, this means that even dead bacteria are a risk, because when their genes become airborne, other bacteria can acquire that genetic material. Researchers have been keen to gauge just how prevalent this issue might be.

Researchers from Peking University studied air samples from 19 cities spanning the United States, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Poland, France, Denmark, Brazil, South Korea, and South Africa.

They found that San Francisco had the greatest concentration of antibiotic resistant genes, but that Beijing in China actually had the most variety of antibiotic resistant genes. Interestingly enough, it is the latter that is perhaps the more worrying, because resistance to just one antibiotic is regrettable but ultimately can be managed, while resistance to many antibiotics poses greater health risks.

In this case, it means if we breathe in genes circulating in our air, there’s a chance that a usually harmless bacteria we may be carrying could acquire the antibiotic resistance. In isolated cases that wouldn’t be so bad, but on a larger scale, it’s easy to see how this could dramatically increase antibiotic resistance.

This isn’t the first study to look at the issue of horizontal gene transfer through the air and how it might contribute to antibiotics resistance, but it is among the first research papers to say concretely that it is an issue, even outside of our big cities.

“Remote regions even without using antibiotics could be exposed to the second hand ARGs, which are initially being developed in other regions but transported elsewhere,” the researchers explain. “This work highlights the threat of airborne transmission of ARGs and the need of redefining our current air quality standards in terms with public health in an urban city.”

This raises a very important point.

Our current air safety standards are notoriously lax, thanks to the fossil fuel industry and big businesses using their influence to keep thresholds as low as possible. What this new study suggests is, at the moment, we’re not even evaluating the full spectrum of things we need to be mindful of.

While airborne genes might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, it is potentially a real obstacle to tackling antibiotics resistance and, unless we act now, the finale is unlikely to be a happy ending.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

62 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

Thanks.

SEND
David C
David C8 months ago

thanks

SEND
Emma L
Past Member 8 months ago

Really bad.

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara8 months ago

build your immune system

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara8 months ago

th

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara8 months ago

worrying

SEND
Sophie A
Past Member 8 months ago

Thank you

SEND
Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer8 months ago

Oh, oh, oh

SEND
Peggy B
Peggy B8 months ago

Good to know

SEND
Michael F
Michael Friedmann8 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

SEND