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The CDC describes antibiotic resistance as one of the most pressing public health crises in the world. It is currently being discovered in the stomachs of lemurs (our distant primate cousins).
Researchers at Duke have discovered evidence of antibiotic resistance in the microbiome from lemurs that live close to humans, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. They found more antibiotic resistance the closer they came to humans.
Graduate student Sally Bornbusch, and Christine Drea (Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University) sampled the dung from ring-tailed Lemurs. They sequenced all the genes found in the dung to find genetic markers for antibiotic resistance.
Microbes are like an overlaying blanket on everything. They’re not only in our guts, but also on our skin, our furniture, and in our food and water. They’re everywhere, all the time, and they are easily transmitted between environments.”Sally Bornbusch, Graduate Student, Duke University
Microbes are like an overlaying blanket on everything. They’re not only in our guts, but also on our skin, our furniture, and in our food and water. They’re everywhere, all the time, and they are easily transmitted between environments.”
Sally Bornbusch, Graduate Student, Duke University
The study included 10 populations of lemurs: 7 wild lemurs from Madagascar, 2 from research facilities (the Lemur Rescue Center in Madagascar or the Duke Lemur Center in America), and finally a group of pet lemurs in Madagascar.
The average number of resistance genes found in gut microbiomes in wild animals was almost zero. However, animals obtained from research facilities had a higher proportion of resistance genes than wild lemurs. The proportion was nearly 35 times higher in pet lemurs.
This is probably due to the excellent veterinary care: Lemurs who live in research facilities are treated when necessary for infection and have more direct exposure to antibiotics that their wild counterparts.
The highest levels of antibiotic resistance were found in pet lemurs who likely did not receive veterinary care.
Madagascar has made it illegal to keep a lemur as an animal companion. Therefore, owners of lemurs will not be able to take them to the veterinarian to avoid legal consequences. This is why pet lemurs are becoming resistant to antibiotics by simply sharing their environment with domestic animals and humans.
The ring-tailed lemurs can eat anything they want, including dirt and excrement. They are frequently found in a household where they are constantly in contact with people, often perched on their owners’ shoulders or in the arms tourists who will pay for a photograph (a practice that can be harmful to both humans as well as animals).
Bornbusch stated that pet lemurs are likely to develop antibiotic resistance due to their social and physical environment.
The gradient in human activity influenced antibiotic resistance among wild lemurs. The antibiotic resistance of animals from areas that are impacted by cattle grazing or farming was higher than in those from more pristine environments. However, it is still lower than the lemurs who live close to humans.
Bornbusch stated that “antibiotic treatment is not the only mechanism” which leads to an increase in resistance genes in animals.
Even lemurs in research facilities had similar levels of antibiotic resistance to those who were treated for multiple infections.
The type of resistance genes acquired was also affected by the proximity to humans. While the microbiomes of ring-tailed Lemurs of Madagascar showed signs that they were resistant to antibiotics used in combating plague outbreaks, lemurs from the United States had resistance to many antibiotics commonly prescribed in North America.
Antibiotic resistance genes have been around for a while. Over millions of years, microbes have evolved resistance genes and mutated them in an arms race against naturally occurring antibiotics.
This process is usually not a problem in a natural setting. However, things went wrong when humans used the power of naturally occurring antibiotics to create antibiotics for the public.
Bornbusch stated that “Humans developed antibiotics and spread them all over the world.” These results, though not encouraging, can have a positive effect on wildlife management and conservation.
Bornbusch stated, “Even though these results may seem scary, they help to use microbiome science for honed veterinary practices as well as conservation activities.” Bornbusch also stated that further research is necessary to understand the effects of resistance genes on wildlife.
Bornbusch stated, “Right now we know that resistance genes exist, but we don’t know if they are really harmful to lemurs.” These results provide a foundation for future research into the effects of resistant microbes on wildlife, and their environment.
Bornbusch, S.L & Drea, C.M., (2021) Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Lemur Gut and Soil Microbiota Along a Gradient of Anthropogenic Disturbance. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2021.704070.