Magazine article Science News

Genes as Pollutants: Tracking Drug-Resistant DNA in the Environment

Magazine article Science News

Genes as Pollutants: Tracking Drug-Resistant DNA in the Environment

Article excerpt

A study that traces antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment indicates that they are present even in treated drinking water. The researchers behind the work and other scientists assert that the genes should be considered environmental contaminants and advocate environmental-engineering approaches toward limiting the spread of drug resistance.

In recent decades, overprescribing of antibiotics and widespread application of the drugs to farm animals have increased microbial resistance. The resistant microbes spread through human and farm populations. The antibiotics end up in human and animal waste and can reach the environment, where resistance can also develop in soil- and water-dwelling bacteria. These bacteria might then transfer the resistance genes to microbes that affect people.

The genes that enable bacteria to resist antibiotics, for instance by expelling the drugs, can be exchanged between microbes in several ways. Amy Pruden, an environmental engineer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, notes that bacteria may also pick up free DNA.

Pruden and her colleagues decided to track the spread of antibiotic-resistance genes through an environment. The team used a method that would detect specific DNA sequences, whether from bacterial cells or their surroundings.

The researchers took sediment samples at five locations along the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado, beginning at its origin in the Rocky Mountains and continuing east to downstream sites in agricultural and urban areas. …

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