Carlsbad Collection Carries Antibiotic Resistance

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on April 28, 2012

Laboratory Equipment.: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Found in Untouched Cave Carlsbad collection carries kinds of antibiotic resistance beyond the reach of modern medicine’s wonder drugs.

Deep in Lechuguilla Cave, a large isolated cave within Carlsbad Cavern National Park in New Mexico, researchers have collected bacteria demonstrating resistance to at least 14 different antibiotics. With no possibility of human contamination, long cut off even from the possibility of water penetration from outside the cave, these bacteria have never been exposed to man-made antibiotics. Therefore, the researchers believe their findings support the idea that, while pharmaceuticals don’t trigger the evolution of drug resistance genes, natural antibiotics and antibiotic resistance “evolved over millions of years.”1

McMaster University’s Gerry Wright and University of Akron professor Hazel Barton’s team found many strains of bacteria that are harmless to humans but resistant to many antibiotics. One carried in its genome the blueprint for resistance to a modern antibiotic-of-last-resort. All the bacteria harbored some antibiotic resistance, and practically every class of modern antibiotics was represented in the resistance genes of some bacteria in the cave. These ancient resistance genes could show up in dangerous bacteria and, through natural selection, become a major problem.

“Our study shows that antibiotic resistance is hard-wired into bacteria,” Wright says.

“Our study shows that antibiotic resistance is hard-wired into bacteria,” Wright says, “It could be billions of years old, but we have only been trying to understand it for the last 70 years. This has important clinical implications.” Barton explains, “We can say to doctors, ‘While this isn’t a problem right now, it could be in the future so you need to be aware of this pre-existing resistance and be prepared if it emerges in the clinic. Or you are going to have a problem.’”

“Most practitioners believe that bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance in the clinic,” Wright says. “As doctors prescribe antibiotics, they select for members of the community that are resistant to these drugs. Over time, these organisms spread and eventually the bacteria that commonly cause these infections are all resistant. In extreme cases these organisms are resistant to seven or more drugs and are untreatable using traditional treatment. . . . The actual source of much of this resistance is harmless bacteria that live in the environment.”

Many microorganisms horizontally transfer genetic information among themselves. Thus, harmless bacteria, such as those deep in Carlsbad, could provide pathogenic bacteria with the genetic information to resist medicine’s best weapons. Many practicing physicians are well aware of the role of natural selection in promoting the survival and selection of bacteria that already harbor genetic information equipping them to resist antibiotics. That bacteria already possessed information for antibiotic resistance long before the modern pharmaceutical industry began producing wonder drugs was demonstrated in 1988 when explorers frozen since 1845 were found to harbor resistant bacteria in their colons. The present research team last year proved antibiotic resistance frozen in Ice Age permafrost was carried in ancient bacterial genomes. (See News to Note, December 31, 2011: Year in Review for more information.) Nevertheless, antibiotic resistance has become one of the most popular “proofs” of evolution as evolutionary promoters fail to distinguish between the selection of pre-existing information and the production of new genetic material.

On the other hand, antibiotics are often derived from or modeled on natural substances that have long been present in ordinary ecosystems. Therefore, the team writes, “The mechanisms of antibiotic modification and inactivation [strategies bacteria “use” to resist antibiotics] are evidence of highly specific evolutionary adaptations to evade the cytotoxic action of these antibiotics.”2 From that standpoint, the discovery of such widespread resistance genes suggests, Wright says, “that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections.” Wright and Barton’s research “supports a growing understanding that antibiotic resistance is natural, ancient, and hard wired in the microbial pangenome.”3 They add, “Such elements are the result of evolution through natural selection; this therefore implies that antibiotic resistance has a long evolutionary past.”4 There was a time when people thought bacteria evolved resistance because they “needed” to. But—as demonstrated by this group’s work and by the 1988 study—variations and mutations that confer resistance are already in the genomes of some bacteria. The “resistance information” does not necessarily develop in response to the antibiotic threat. But the pre-existence of that genetic information for resistance does not demonstrate evolution over millions of years. The “growing understanding that antibiotic resistance is natural” is a confirmation of the role of natural selection acting on microbes that horizontally transfer information. None of this research supports any sort of molecules-to-man evolutionary concepts or even the “deep time” implied in the phrase “long evolutionary past.”

As the research team suggests, models for more useful antibiotics may be found in nature because natural selection has likely facilitated the persistence of resistance genes in isolated bacteria in response to the existence of natural antibiotics. Yet the more ominous flip side of their news is a reminder for vigilance, not in expectation of an “evolutionary war on humanity” but rather alertness for the “sobering successes of natural selection” in a sin-cursed world.

Antibiotic resistance not only fails to prove the evolution of new kinds of organisms but actually demonstrates our Creator’s wisdom. God created microbes for important functions, and the majority are still harmless. The existence of biochemical means to keep bacterial populations in check as well as the genetic information to enable microbes to resist such “natural antibiotics” likely provided a balance in the pre-Fall world. Changing conditions in the post-Fall world have allowed helpful bacteria to become dangerous (see The Genesis of Pathogenic E. coli). A combination of mutations, horizontally transferred genes, environmental changes, and host changes can transform harmless microorganisms into pathogens. Frankly, from an evolutionary point of view, killing the host is a particularly bad idea! Biblical understanding explains the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance.

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