Underground resistance

Cave bacteria’s ability to fight antibiotics predates human-made drugs

Even though bacteria in Lechuguilla Cave have been cut off from the surface for millions of years and were never exposed to antibiotics for medicine or agriculture, most of the 93 strains analyzed in a new study are resistant to several antibiotics. Bacteria found in the cave have ways of fighting off up to 21 kinds of antibiotics, researchers from the University of Akron in Ohio and McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, report online April 11 in PLoS ONE.

Even though bacteria deep in Lechuguilla Cave have been cut off from the surface for millions of years, dozens of strains of bacteria discovered there are resistant to antibiotics. © Max Wisshak/speleo-foto.de

Most can defuse antibiotic substances made by other microbes, but unlike aboveground bacteria have little resistance to human-made antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin.

At least one cave species has evolved a new mechanism for inactivating daptomycin, a drug based on a compound made by some bacteria, raising the possibility that natural populations of bacteria could pass on antibiotic resistance genes to bacteria that infect people.

Tina Hesman Saey

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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