Department of Botany
Supervisor: Dr Alison Donnelly
Antibiotic Resistance: Prevalence in Natural Environments
How can flamingos help us solve one of the greatest threats to human health?
Although antibiotics have changed the way that human health care has evolved, their excessive use in recent years – often termed ‘misuse’ or described as ‘irrational’ by experts – has been problematic. One consequence of this is the emergence of antibiotic resistance – a phenomenon whereby bacteria can survive exposure to antibiotics that occurs after prolonged and/or repeated exposure to antibiotics. Because they undermine the potential success of antibiotics, antibiotic resistant bacteria are of critical concern with regards to human health.
As early as 1992, the emerging problem of antibiotic resistance was termed a ‘crisis’, and it is a problem that has not gone away: it has more recently been described as ‘catastrophic’, ‘epidemic’, and a ‘serious threat’. Perhaps most notably, the World Health Organization (WHO) has cited antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to human health. Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, warns, “The emergence and spread of drug-resistant pathogens has accelerated. More and more essential medicines are failing.”
Antibiotic resistant bacteria have become increasingly prevalent in natural environments, having spread from urban and agricultural environments where antibiotics are commonly used. Research on a number of organisms has indicated that wildlife serve as reservoirs of antibiotic resistance, which can be transferred to humans. Most of these studies have relied upon single-site approaches. Thus, there remain many questions about the extent to which land use and landscape factors influence the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in natural environments.
I am investigating these geographical variations and the factors driving them in my research. I am doing so through use of the Greater Flamingo as a sentinel (indicator) organism, and have established a network of study sites across the Mediterranean. During ringing operations in the summer, I collected cloacal swabs from several hundred wild flamingos in Spain, France and Italy. With these bacterial samples, I will be able to assess the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in the Greater Flamingo and make comparisons between sites. This will allow me to determine the extent to which land use and landscape factors can affect the patterns of antibiotic resistance.
I am also working to develop ways in which antibiotic resistance research conducted worldwide, with different indicator organisms, can be synthesized and analysed. This includes provisional plans for a website at which researchers can upload their data, and which provides for a facility with which previous research is readily available and can be searched.
So, although I haven’t yet been able to put any flamingos to work as laboratory assistants, the samples I have taken from them form the basis of my research and as such, they are contributing information which is critical in finding a solution to the global problem of antibiotic resistance.