Team makes terrifying superbug gene discovery in unlikeliest of places

28 Jan 2019

Image: © Morten/

Even in one of the most remote parts of the world, genes associated with a highly-resistant superbug have been unearthed.

There is growing evidence that the scale of global antibiotic resistance is even greater than we once thought following a worrying discovery in one of the last ‘pristine’ locations on Earth.

In a paper published to Environment International, researchers led by Newcastle University confirmed the existence of an antibiotic-resistant gene (ARG) in soil samples obtained from the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.

The gene, blaNDM-1, was originally found nearly 13,000km away in an Indian clinical setting. Now, its discovery in a land almost devoid of human activity echoes the fears of many scientists who warn of a global catastrophe.

The spread of blaNDM-1 and other multi-drug-resistant genes is resulting in many situations where antibiotics dubbed a ‘last resort’ for treatment – such as carbapenems – cannot be used to treat an infection.

The blaNDM-1 gene is carried in the gut of animals and people, and it is believed that it made its way into Arctic soils through the spread of faecal matter from birds as well as other wildlife and human visitors.

Clearly not ‘local’ to the Arctic

“Less than three years after the first detection of the blaNDM-1 gene in the surface waters of urban India, we are finding them thousands of miles away in an area where there has been minimal human impact,” said research team leader Prof David Graham.

“Encroachment into areas like the Arctic reinforces how rapid and far-reaching the spread of antibiotic resistance has become, confirming solutions to antibiotic resistance must be viewed in global rather than just local terms.”

Analysis of 40 soil cores at eight locations in the Arctic during the survey showed that a total of 131 ARGs were detected, associated with nine major antibiotic classes, including aminoglycosides, macrolides and β-lactams used to treat many infections.

For example, a gene that confers mult-drug resistance in tuberculosis was found in all of the sample cores, whereas blaNDM-1 was detected in more than 60pc of the soil cores in the study.

“This finding has huge implications for global [antibiotic resistance] spread,” Graham warned. “A clinically important ARG originating from south Asia is clearly not ‘local’ to the Arctic.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic