Scientists studying DNA in soil samples from Svalbard in the High Arctic have discovered a surprisingly large number of clinically-important antibiotic resistance genes. In total, 131 antimicrobial resistance genes were identified, while five out of eight sites had abundant multidrug resistance genes.

 The Svalbard Islands

The Svalbard Islands are in Northern Norway.

The finding is all the more unexpected as the team was seeking a virgin environment to try and establish what a background level of antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria looks like. 

 soil bacteria

Scientists found genes important to antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria.

‘We took 40 samples to give us an idea of what the baseline of resistance might look like in nature, but we were surprised by how different the sites were from each other,’ says lead scientist David Graham at Newcastle University. Areas with high wildlife or human impact had greatest diversity of resistance DNA in the soil.

The results show that antibiotic resistance genes are accumulating even in the most remote locations. Included in a number of samples was a multidrug resistant gene called New Dehli strain, first isolated in India.

Newcastle University find antibiotic resistant genes in Arctic. Video: Newcastle University

Some sites had levels of antimicrobial resistance 10 times greater than others, particularly those with elevated levels of phosphorus, a nutrient usually scarce in Arctic soils. 

‘There was much greater resistance diversity in sites with strong signatures of faecal matter,’ says Graham, indicating that migratory birds most likely brought the antimicrobial resistance genes, depositing them via their guano.