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Ancient Permafrost Bacteria Can Be Resistant to Modern Antibiotics

Ancient strains of sequenced bacteria possessed genes encoding resistance to widely used antibiotics

The resistance of pathogenic micro-organisms to antibiotics is our responsibility—starting from farmers seeking how to save their crops and animals from disease at all costs, to all those who are taking antibiotics without a doctor’s advice. As a result of such massive antibiotic “bombardment,” the most powerful bacteria and fungi survive, then transmit antibiotic resistance genes to their descendants. It is difficult to keep up with this evolution: it can often take years to move from the stage of synthesizing a new drug to putting it on the market.

“It is an interesting question—how can the resistance of micro-organisms to antibiotics be related to another contemporary problem—global warming? The answer is rather simple: the melting of the ice can release ancient micro-organisms that are causing diseases. Perhaps even much more deadly and contagious. Of course, one can hope that they will be sensitive to modern antibiotics, but our research says that it may not be so,” says Andrey Rakitin, one of the authors of the scientific paper, PhD, senior researcher of the Laboratory of Molecular Cloning Systems, Research Center of Biotechnology RAS.

It turned out that the bacteria Acinetobacter lwoffii, isolated for thousands or millions of years in permafrost, were resistant to antibiotics. This was discovered when the genomes of five strains extracted from the permafrost of Kolyma lowlands in Yakutia were sequenced. This research was made by biologists from both The Institute of Molecular Genetics of National Research Centre “Kurchatov Institute” and the Research Center of Biotechnology. A. lwoffii are widespread in a wide variety of habitats and are usually non-pathogenic, but their close relatives, other species of the genus Acinetobacter, can cause dangerous infectious diseases in humans and animals.

The full-genome study of strains isolated from permafrost was carried out by The Research Center of Biotechnology as part of the project made by the world-class research center “Agrotechnologies of the Future.” Analysis of genome sequences and their comparison with modern clinical isolates of A. lwoffii revealed very limited differences. Ancient strains also possessed genes encoding resistance to widely used antibiotics such as streptomycin, spectinomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline.

“The bacteria we studied were isolated [in] permafrost aged between 15,000 and 1.8 million years, but they had a lot in common with modern strains. Our colleagues received similar results and the situation is frightening. Global warming can only be slowed down, but it can never be stopped, and it can release new infections. A study of these potential pathogens now buried in permafrost could save our lives and health in the future,” says Nikolai Ravin, a doctor of science in biology, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Cloning at Research Center of Biotechnology RAS.

 - This press release was provided by the Federal Research Centre "Fundamentals of Biotechnology" of the Russian Academy of Science