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The "Selfishness" of Soil Bacteria is Saving Us From Catastrophe

May 22, 2014 03:08 PM EDT

Soil bacteria are extremely resistant to antimicrobials in more ways than scientists can count. Yet, for some reason, these bacteria have refused to share these defensive traits with other more dangerous bacteria, or even one another. Scientists claim that understanding why this occurs may be an important step in understanding how to prevent the world's next "superbug" from ever evolving.

A study recently published in the journal Nature details how scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. discovered that bacteria that live naturally in soil have an alarmingly large and varied "armory" of genes that help them fight off antibiotics.

This frightening discovery follows other reports that antibiotic-resistant traits can be found among germs literally everywhere. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that consequentially we may face a future "post-antibiotic era" in which health professionals are left without any means to effectively treat victims of once trivial infections.

Study senior author Gantam Dantas explained in a Washington University news release that it is imperative that the "strategies" soil bacteria possess for fighting antibiotics never reach more dangerous microbes.

"We need to make sure the genes that make these strategies possible aren't shared with infectious bacteria, because they could make the problem of drug-resistant infections much worse," he said.

To make sure there is no immediate threat of this occurring, researchers analyzed the bacterial DNA of 18 soil samples from around Minnesota and Michigan. According to the analysis, while there were around 3,000 antibiotic-resistant genes in these microbes, they were not situated in parts of the genetic code that enable the sharing of traits.

In fact, the researchers found that the traits among soil bacteria were so varied and specific to each bacterial group that it is suspected these traits are not even readily shared among species.

According to Dantas, this shows that a bacterial doomsday is still preventable.

"We want to do everything we can - whether it's changing how we treat infections in medical clinics or altering the way we manage the environments where bacteria grow - to keep the odds stacked against sharing of these genes," he said.

The study was published in Nature on May 21.

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