Hedgehogs harbored a type of MRSA superbug long before antibiotics were used in humans and cattle, new research suggests.
Scientists found evidence of the super bacterium occurring in nature well before taking the drugs traditionally blamed for its occurrence.
Hedgehogs carry a fungus and a bacterium on their skin, both of which struggle to survive.
Antibiotics are released by the fungus to kill the bacteria, but in response the bacteria have developed antibiotic resistance – they become methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
Up to 60% of hedgehogs carry a type of MRSA called mecC-MRSA, which, according to the study, causes one in 200 of all MRSA infections in humans.
Researchers now suspect that natural biological processes, and not the use of antibiotics, caused the first appearance of this superbug among hedgehogs about 200 years ago.
The study was an international collaboration with the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Danish Serum Statens Institute and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who have followed the genetic history of the bacteria.
The group examined the surprising discovery from hedgehog studies in Denmark and Sweden and also found high levels of MRSA in smears from hedgehogs throughout their range in Europe and New Zealand.
Dr. Ewan Harrison, a researcher at Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, said, “Using sequencing technology, we traced the genes that give mecC-MRSA its antibiotic resistance to when they first appeared, and found that they existed in the 19th century. “
He added, “Our study suggests that it was not the use of penicillin that drove the first appearance of MRSA, but a natural biological process.
“We believe that MRSA developed on hedgehog skin in a struggle for survival and subsequently spread to livestock and humans through direct contact.”
Given that almost all of the antibiotics used today were created in nature, researchers say there is likely resistance to them in nature too.
Overuse of antibiotics in humans or farm animals favors resistant strains of the beetle, so it is only a matter of time before the antibiotic loses its effectiveness.
Professor Mark Holmes, researcher in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge and senior author of the report, said: “This study is a strong warning that we must be careful when using antibiotics.
“There is a very large wildlife reservoir where antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive, and from there it is only a short step to ingesting them from livestock and then infecting humans.”
In his previous work, he first identified mecC-MRSA in human and dairy cow populations.
At the time, it was believed that the exposure to the cows was due to the large amount of antibiotics they routinely receive.
However, the new findings are no reason to be afraid of hedgehogs, according to the researchers, since people rarely become infected with mecC-MRSA, although it has been occurring in hedgehogs for more than 200 years.
Prof. Holmes added, “Wildlife, farm animals and humans are all interconnected – we all share an ecosystem.
“It is not possible to understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance without looking at the whole system.”
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