BACTERIA resistant to antibiotics has been found in the environment across Scotland including “relatively pristine” environments.

The result has led to concern that the resistant bacteria could be absorbed by humans and lessen the effectiveness of antibiotics.

The scientific study is the first at a national level to test Scotland’s soils for antimicrobial resistance, where microbes like bacteria have evolved to resist antimicrobial drugs such as antibiotics, leading to superbugs like MRSA.

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Scientists at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, the Universities of Strathclyde and Newcastle and the Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen in China, found that genes resistant to common antibiotics were “ubiquitous” across all soils tested.

This included microbes with genes resistant to “last-resort” antibiotics for multidrug-resistant infections, like vancomycin.

“Antimicrobial resistance has been in the environment since before antibiotics were developed for humans but its spread has been exacerbated by human and veterinary use, with a lot of the medicines we take going into the environment via sewage and slurry,” said Hutton environmental microbiologist Dr Eulyn Pagaling.

“There’s a concern that antimicrobial resistance genes can then spread to other bacteria in the environment. These resistant bacteria could then get back into humans and then clinical environments, through contact with the environment, water or food crops, for example, impacting the effectiveness of the antibiotics we rely on day-to-day.

“With our study, we now have a baseline for how widely antimicrobial-resistance genes are spread across Scotland’s soils. This means we could now look at how fast antimicrobial resistance is spreading over time and where.”

The study, published in the Nature group’s journal Communications Earth & Environment, was funded by UKRI’s Natural Environment Research Council.

It used soils in the National Soils Archive, which was created and is managed by the Hutton, and contains soils dating from 1934 to the present, enabling scientists to “go back in time” to see how the prevalence of data like antimicrobial resistance have changed.

Until now, research into antimicrobial resistance in Scotland has focused on specific locations, giving a limited picture of its prevalence in the wider environment.

“This has been a unique opportunity to examine the National Soil Inventory of Scotland at Hutton,” said principal investigator Dr Charles W Knapp, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde. “With more than 200 locations and nearly 300 genes, we better understand how environmental conditions promote antimicrobial resistance abundance and diversity.”

In addition to this study, the Hutton is also looking at ways antimicrobial resistance (AMR) enters the environment, including through sewage, land use and pharmaceuticals.

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The institute’s scientists are collaborating with the Scotland One Health Breakthrough Partnership and the NHS to see whether alternatives to prescribing antibiotics for human use could help to tackle this problem.

This could be social prescribing, including going for a swim, walking or prescribing environmentally less harmful compounds.