Plastic waste a breeding ground for germs

Microplastics can attract drug-resistant bacteria that can cause illness.
11 March 2022


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Microplastics can attract drug-resistant bacteria that capable of causing diseases...

Antimicrobial resistance is a global health concern. Bacteria are rapidly developing means to overcome current drugs through genetic changes, while a dwindling number of novel antibiotics are being developed. Worringly, researchers have found recently that plastic waste can exacerbate this issue by allowing these germs to congregate and swap antimicrobial resistant traits, thus further increasing the spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria.

A team from New Jersey Institute of Technology in the USA found that tiny fragments of plastics - termed microplastics- can attract and proliferate antibiotic resistant bugs. The researchers grew bacteria from wastewater on two kinds of microplastics and compared it to those grown on sand. They found that significantly more harmful bacteria were drawn to the microplastics.

Other scientists in Northern Ireland saw similar results when they examined microplastics arising from food packaging. Here they found that up to 98% of bacteria growing on these plastic remnants were resistant to antibiotics, and that many of these germs are also known to infect humans. This is an unsettling revelation, that our own plastic waste can now be a source of serious diseases.

Scientists have long been wary of microplastics, but have yet to determine how precisely they may affect our health. The plastic particles considered in the above studies arise from everyday items that have broken down into tiny pieces, smaller than a grain of rice. Such miniscule pieces have been found almost everywhere on Earth, including in our food and water. While scientists are still trying to understand the impacts of ingested microplastics, this new finding that they can heighten antibiotic resistance emphasizes the need for responsible plastic use and disposal.

Antibiotics were first widely used following the Second World War to treat infected soldiers. Undoubtedly, these drugs have saved hundreds of millions of lives worldwide and are critical for the progress of modern medicine. Indeed, maintaining the high success rate of common procedures such as caesarean sections or life-saving chemotherapy depend on effective antibiotics. However, the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria compromise these life-saving drugs.

Resistance to antibiotics occurs when bacteria change features targeted by these treatments.  These features are altered by mutations in bacterial genes. Moreover, antibiotics quickly become ineffective across many kinds of bacteria as genes are shared through the population. And sadly, the over-use of these drugs has hastened the frequency of mutations driving resistant traits.

Unfortunately, very few novel antibiotics have been developed after the 1950’s, commonly referred to as the “golden-age of discovery”. Tackling antibiotic resistant bacteria has been prioritised worldwide, with many governments and private sector bodies pledging to support the development of new antibiotics and to protect current ones.

These recent publications highlighting microplastics as a source of antibiotic resistant bacteria has given us another opportunity to help protect antibiotics, by reducing our use of plastics, when we can, and disposing of used plastics properly.

Thankfully, researchers continue to investigate innovative ways to replace plastic and reduce plastic waste. Although the work of cleaning up our environment seems daunting, most would agree that that it is well worth the effort, no matter how small.




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