Drug-Resistant Bacteria Found in Wild Arctic Birds

January 24, 2008

Microbes that are immune to commonly used drugs have been found inside birds living in some of Earth's most remote regions, scientists say.

The research suggests that antibiotic resistance has spread deep into nature—and humans are likely to blame.

"This is an indication how far we have pushed antibiotic resistance," said study leader Björn Olsen, a professor in the department of infectious diseases at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden.

The researchers sampled waste from 97 birds belonging to a dozen different species from the Arctic tundra of northeastern Siberia, northern Alaska, and northern Greenland.

Eight birds—including sandpipers, geese, and gulls—carried Escherichia coli bacteria that was resistant to one or more commonly prescribed antibiotics.

"Many of these antibiotics are used at hospitals against severe infections such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or septicemia [blood poisoning]," Olsen said.

He and his team report their findings in the January issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Spreading Immunity

Olsen believes there are good reasons to suspect humans are to blame for the birds' resistant bacteria.

"We collected penguin samples [in Antarctica] and never found this kind of resistance down there. If it was a naturally circulating resistance, then we should have found it."

Also, only a fraction of the Arctic birds sampled carried drug-resistant bacteria. If the immunity had developed naturally, the researchers noted, more birds should have carried the resistant strain.

"This is not a natural resistance," Olsen said. "I believe what we found on the tundra is a reflection of pickup from human activity."

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