Never mind plain old antibiotic resistance – some soil bacteria can actually EAT antibiotics. In this week’s Science, researchers reported that they isolated hundreds of types of bacteria from regular soil and grew them in the lab with antibiotics as their sole food source. Not only did the bacteria survive, but some strains happily munched on common antibiotics like penicillin & ciprofloxacin. NOM NOM NOM indeed.
To make matters more disturbing, eating one type of antibiotic made the bacteria resistant to other, related antibiotics. If a bacteria was able to eat a single antibiotic, it was resistant to all related antibiotics up to ridiculously high concentrations (20 mg/L).
Though none of the soil bacteria tested were actual human pathogens, some strains were closely related to bacteria that do cause disease. Since bacteria are able to share genes with each other in a kind of pseudo-sex called conjugation, it is possible that soil bacteria could transfer their antibiotic-munching skills to their disease-causing cousins. That would be bad. Though pathogenic bacteria probably don’t need to eat antibiotics (since they’ve got all kinds of lovely human bits to dine upon), they would acquire the eaters’ intense antibiotic resistance.
Does this mean that eating food off the floor actually could contribute to antibiotic resistance? All those years of refusing to buy antibacterial soap, and now I am undone by the 10-second rule! Oh cruel world, where the jellybean from inside the couch is always my favorite flavor…
G. Dantas, M. O. A. Sommer, R. D. Oluwasegun, G. M. Church (2008). Bacteria Subsisting on Antibiotics Science, 320 (5872), 100-103 DOI: 10.1126/science.1155157