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Fighting antibiotic resistance in the environment
– a first look

by: Lotta Peussa

Resistomap hosted a webinar in November 2020 on antibiotic resistance in the environment, as part of its webinar series on Fighting Antibiotic Resistance in the Environment. In the webinar, world-leading researchers and experts shared insights based on their work and discussed the best strategies to avoid further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance. In this blog article, I summarise my key takeaways from the webinar.

As a new member of the Resistomap team, I joined the webinar, along with 366 other people from 46 countries, to learn more about this complex issue. Prior to this, I had seen many headlines about ‘superbugs’ but knew very little about antibiotic resistance and the enormous threat this poses to global health. I was excited to find out how researchers study antibiotic resistance and what role the environment has to play.

Professor Tiedje gave an excellent keynote lecture in which he listed wastewater treatment and animal agriculture as the most high-risk environmental sources of resistant bacteria. I was fascinated to learn that resistance to antibiotics naturally exists in the environment and that this pattern of natural resistance is similar in soil samples across the world. He also emphasised that addressing the antibiotic resistance crisis requires us to look at how the whole system works together to create drug resistant bacteria – known as the One Health approach. Despite progress that has been made in the field over the last decade, a central challenge remains – how to distinguish problematic levels of resistance from natural background resistance?

Given this challenge, I was eager to hear Dr Bengtsson-Palme’s presentation on the EMBARK project. I was surprised to learn that there is a lack of baseline data for resistance in different environments, making it hard to evaluate whether detected resistance levels are problematic or not. The main goal of the EMBARK project is to establish such a baseline, that is, what is a normal amount of resistance in different environments. In addition, the research group aims to develop a monitoring framework that allows resistance data to be compared easily across countries and organisations, creating a global picture of resistance. The group hopes that this framework will help important monitoring efforts in low- and middle-income countries in particular.

In a related talk, Dr Muziasari shared exciting results demonstrating Resistomap’s newly developed digital platform for monitoring antibiotic resistant genes in wastewater. The study found a peak in the number of antibiotic resistant genes detected at a wastewater treatment plant in July 2020 compared to other sampling months. In hospital wastewater samples, one hospital site showed higher levels of resistance than the other, which was in line with the site’s higher use of antibiotics.
Together, these results suggest that routine monitoring using Resistomap’s digital platform can capture the dynamics of antibiotic resistant genes in wastewater over time. Dr Muziasari hopes that the platform can serve as an early warning system for resistance outbreaks. She also shared a global map of antibiotic resistance developed by Resistomap, which suggests that different genes may be problematic in different countries.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending this webinar and learning about some of the central questions in the field. I plan to continue to learn more about antibiotic resistance and am looking forward to the next webinar we host. Join us for our next webinar series starting on 23 February 2021 to hear about antibiotic resistance monitoring projects in low- and middle-income countries. Stay tuned for more information!

If you would like to review the webinar discussed here for yourself, recordings are available on our website. To access them, please register here.

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