How climate change could unleash world-destroying superbugs

Scientists in Antarctica have discovered strains of a “superpower” bacterium that could trigger the world’s next deadly pandemic.

Researchers found that the bacteria have built-in resistance to antibiotics that could render current treatments useless.

The Chilean researchers made the discovery while studying how climate change could affect the spread of bacteria that have been frozen in the ice for millennia.

They warned that climate change means the bacteria could potentially spread beyond polar regions, with potentially catastrophic results.

Bacterial research in Antarctica
Hyperresistant bacteria discovered in Antarctica could pose a risk to global health, scientists say.
University of Chile/Zenger

University of Chile researcher Andres Marcoleta led the study, which was published in March in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

He said mobile fragments of DNA contain “superpowers” that evolved to withstand extreme conditions and can be easily transferred to other bacteria.

Marcoleta said: “We know that the soils of the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the polar areas most affected by melting ice, support a wide variety of bacteria and that some of them represent a potential source of ancestral genes that confer antibiotic resistance. “

University researchers collected a series of samples from the Antarctic Peninsula between 2017 and 2019.

They were amazed to find that many of the bacteria were virtually indestructible.

The specimens had surprising adaptations and abilities, including their high resistance to the effects of multiple classes of antibiotics and other toxic substances.

The researchers found that Pseudomonas bacteria – one of the predominant bacterial groups on the peninsula – are not pathogenic but can be a source of “resistance genes” that are not stopped by common disinfectants such as copper, chlorine or quaternary ammonium.

They also found that Polaromonas bacteria – which are also prevalent in polar environments – have the “potential to inactivate beta-lactam-type antibiotics, which are essential for treating various infections,” according to Marcoleta.

Bacteria collect in Antarctica
A University of Chile scientist collects organic material in Antarctica in 2019 while studying how climate change could affect the spread of bacteria that have been frozen in the ice for millennia.
University of Chile/Zenger

The researcher said: “It is worth asking whether climate change could have an impact on the emergence of infectious diseases.

“In one possible scenario, these genes could leave this reservoir and promote the emergence and spread of infectious diseases.”

Marcoleta warned, “The idea that these genes might eventually reach bacteria that cause infections in humans or other animals and give them greater resilience doesn’t seem far-fetched.”

He said the results should stimulate the scientific community to anticipate the emergence of possible new resistance mechanisms in infectious diseases and guide the design of new antibiotics.

However, he added that some properties of these bacteria could also have other important biotechnological applications.

The researcher said that the COVID-19 pandemic “has taught us that microorganisms, and particularly pathogens, can have impacts with global reach. With that in mind, it’s worth asking whether climate change might have an impact on the emergence of infectious diseases.”

The melting of the North and South Poles is one of the most well-known direct consequences of climate change.

The research is ongoing and could be taken much further in a new larger research project called ‘Anillo mBioClim’.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News. How climate change could unleash world-destroying superbugs

Rick Schindler

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