Bacteria create aquatic superbugs in waste treatment plants
Bacteria in wastewater treatment plants have the perfect opportunity to swap genes for antibiotic resistance. They can trade bits of DNA with ease, in some cases acquiring the ability to live when treated with multiple antibiotics. While most bacteria are killed during waste water treatment, some scientists at the University of Michigan set out to find out how many bacteria survived and what antibiotic resistance they had.
In the first known study of its kind, Chuanwu Xi of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and his team sampled water containing the bacteria Acinetobacter at five sites in and near Ann Arbor's wastewater treatment plant.
They found the so-called superbugs—bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics—up to 100 yards downstream from the discharge point into the Huron River. Xi stresses that while the finding may be disturbing, it is important to understand that much work is still needed to assess what risk, if any, the presence of superbugs in aquatic environments poses to humans.
When penicillin was introduced to treat infections in the '40s, it killed just about any bacterium exposed to it. Now many strains of bacteria have acquired a defense against it. Many new varieties of antibiotics have been developed since, but it continues to be a race against bacteria's ability to get new defenses. We now have multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria has emerged as one of the top public health issues worldwide in the last few decades as the overuse of antibiotics and other factors have caused bacteria to become resistant to common drugs. Xi's group chose to study Acinetobacter because it is a growing cause of hospital-acquired infections and because of its ability to acquire antibiotic resistance.
Acinetobacter (ass in ée toe back ter) is a group of bacteria commonly found in soil and water. It can also be found on the skin of healthy people, especially healthcare personnel. While there are many types or “species” of Acinetobacter and all can cause human disease, Acinetobacter baumannii accounts for about 80% of reported infections.
Outbreaks of Acinetobacter infections typically occur in intensive care units and healthcare settings housing very ill patients. Acinetobacter infections rarely occur outside of healthcare settings.