Antibiotic resistance is a global threat to health. But some bacteria are not content to resist them: they actually feed on them, which could ultimately be beneficial to the environment, according to a study published Monday.
The concretization of such a process is still hypothetical but researchers are hopeful that these greedy bacteria — as they are being referred to — could one day be used to help clean the soil and the streams where high concentrations of antibiotics are thrown away.
The goal of the researchers is to rid the environment of these drugs, which are excessively prescribed and too often thrown away in Nature without any consideration. Furthermore, they believe that consumption of these drugs by the bacteria could also help in slowing down the rate of resistance of the bacteria to the drugs.
“Understanding the mechanism by which an antibiotic can be turned into food could help develop bacteria that can clean the soil and waterways that are contaminated with these drugs, thereby slowing the progression of resistance,” they researchers explain in a statement.
The study was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology and focuses on four types of bacteria found in soils, which are all resistant to penicillin.
The researchers found that three sets of genes become active only when these bacteria feed on penicillin. They use the latter as a source of carbon, an essential element for their survival.
At first, the bacteria neutralize the part of the antibiotic that is supposed to be toxic to them.
The bacteria used for the experiment are quite difficult to manipulate but researchers plan, after understanding the mechanism of their action, to reproduce the same process on more manipulable bacteria, like Escherichia coli, by genetically modifying them.
The operation is a complex one and should include a mechanism to speed up the very slow process of converting antibiotics into food.
“Today, it is unrealistic to spread these bacteria on polluted soil to clean everything, but at least we know how they do it,” said one of the authors of the study, Gautam Dantas, Washington University, St. Louis, Central United States.
Scientists and health officials have sounded the alarm in recent years on the increasing antibiotic resistance of bacteria.
According to a British study that was published in 2016, the development of super-resistant bacteria could be responsible for about 10 million deaths a year in the world by 2050.
The United Nations is also alarmed. In a report published in December, the international organization decried the large amounts of antibiotics that are thrown the environment every year via wastewater or agriculture.
“Too little attention has been paid to the role of the environment,” noted Erik Solheim, director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), talking about fight against antimicrobial resistance.