Superbugs resistant to some of the most powerful antibiotics in the medical arsenal have been found for the first time in a British river – with scientists pinpointing a local sewage-treatment plant as the most likely source.
Scientists discovered the drug-resistant bacteria in sediment samples taken downstream of the sewerage plant on the River Sowe near Coventry. The microbes contained mutated genes that confer resistance to the latest generation of antibiotics.
The researchers believe the discovery shows how antibiotic resistance has become widespread in the environment, with sewage-treatment plants now acting as giant “mixing vessels” where antibiotic resistance can spread between different microbes.
A study found that a wide range of microbes living in the river had acquired a genetic mutation that is known to provide resistance to third-generation cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics used widely to treat meningitis, blood infections and other hospital-acquired infections.
Within the river sediment, the scientists also found human gut bacteria that had developed resistance to another kind of antibiotic, called imipenem, which is administered by intravenous injections for severe infections not normally treatable with other antibiotics.
“These are frontline antibiotics and we were not expecting to see these kinds of levels of resistance to them in the environment. It is quite staggering,” said Professor Elizabeth Wellington of the University of Warwick, who led the study.
“This is a worrying development and we need to be concerned about it. We’ve completely underestimated the role waste-treatment processes can play in antibiotic resistance,” she told The Independent.