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Can wastewater treatment methods really be developing new antibiotics?

Can wastewater treatment methods really be developing new antibiotics?

Medical science continues to advance at a relentless pace. It seems that, almost every other a week, a cure, or at least an innovative preventative measure, is being developed to help us fight off the range of illnesses that can compromise our health at any given time.

However, seemingly as quickly as these breakthroughs are made, viruses, bacteria and other infections mutate and evolve to thwart health professionals' best-laid plans. A new strain of flu emerges annually, causing the need for a new vaccination, and the common cold mutates so regularly that it's impossible to keep up with.

Now, new research has found that antibiotics present in wastewater - a phenomena not new to medical science - could be becoming resistant to methods of cleaning said water, creating a new wave of antibiotics.

An ecosystem in wastewater

Sound like a good thing? It isn't - when these antibiotics get released into the wider world - via a toilet flush or down the plug hole, for example - harmful bacterias and other microscopic life forms that come into contact with them may build something of a resistance, meaning that they could become less effective when used to fight illnesses in humans.

Antibiotics can help you fight a range of illnesses - but some bacterias are growing in resistance to them.Antibiotics can help you fight a range of illnesses - but some bacterias are growing in resistance to them.

Engineering professor Olya Keen, of the University of North Carolina, analysed an antibiotic known as doxycycline, often administered by doctors to combat certain conditions. To treat wastewater, common chlorine is typically used - the same stuff that is used to keep swimming pool water sanitised. The study found that chlorine, over time, has the potential to change the very make-up of doxycycline and create newer, more powerful antibiotics.

"Wastewater treatment is designed to break down biological substances but not antibiotics. Surprisingly enough, though, we are finding in the lab that not only is chlorine not breaking down antibiotics, but it is actually creating even stronger antibiotics than the original doxycycline," said Professor Keen.

A meeting of microbes

Complications arise when antibiotics present in treated water are released into the world, via stream rivers and other means. It's here that they'll meet other bacterias, which will, eventually, form a resistance to them. Over time, those bacterias can evolve into potentially harmful entities, and, what's more, they'll be impervious to medication administered by doctors - because they've already developed said resistance.

"[Antibiotics in wastewater] can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which humans and animals may not be able to fight off. We're hoping to eventually find better ways of breaking down the antibiotics during wastewater treatment or developing preventative solutions to keep antibiotics out of wastewater in the first place," remarked Nicole Kennedy-Neth, a doctoral student who helped conduct the study.

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Can wastewater treatment methods really be developing new antibiotics?

A new study has found that antibiotics that have survived in treated wastewater may be contributing to certain bacterias becoming resistant to them.

Medical science continues to advance at a relentless pace. It seems that, almost every other a week, a cure, or at least an innovative preventative measure, is being developed to help us fight off the range of illnesses that can compromise our health at any given time.

However, seemingly as quickly as these breakthroughs are made, viruses, bacteria and other infections mutate and evolve to thwart health professionals' best-laid plans. A new strain of flu emerges annually, causing the need for a new vaccination, and the common cold mutates so regularly that it's impossible to keep up with.

Now, new research has found that antibiotics present in wastewater - a phenomena not new to medical science - could be becoming resistant to methods of cleaning said water, creating a new wave of antibiotics.

An ecosystem in wastewater

Sound like a good thing? It isn't - when these antibiotics get released into the wider world - via a toilet flush or down the plug hole, for example - harmful bacterias and other microscopic life forms that come into contact with them may build something of a resistance, meaning that they could become less effective when used to fight illnesses in humans.

Antibiotics can help you fight a range of illnesses - but some bacterias are growing in resistance to them.Antibiotics can help you fight a range of illnesses - but some bacterias are growing in resistance to them.

Engineering professor Olya Keen, of the University of North Carolina, analysed an antibiotic known as doxycycline, often administered by doctors to combat certain conditions. To treat wastewater, common chlorine is typically used - the same stuff that is used to keep swimming pool water sanitised. The study found that chlorine, over time, has the potential to change the very make-up of doxycycline and create newer, more powerful antibiotics.

"Wastewater treatment is designed to break down biological substances but not antibiotics. Surprisingly enough, though, we are finding in the lab that not only is chlorine not breaking down antibiotics, but it is actually creating even stronger antibiotics than the original doxycycline," said Professor Keen.

A meeting of microbes

Complications arise when antibiotics present in treated water are released into the world, via stream rivers and other means. It's here that they'll meet other bacterias, which will, eventually, form a resistance to them. Over time, those bacterias can evolve into potentially harmful entities, and, what's more, they'll be impervious to medication administered by doctors - because they've already developed said resistance.

"[Antibiotics in wastewater] can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which humans and animals may not be able to fight off. We're hoping to eventually find better ways of breaking down the antibiotics during wastewater treatment or developing preventative solutions to keep antibiotics out of wastewater in the first place," remarked Nicole Kennedy-Neth, a doctoral student who helped conduct the study.

Can wastewater treatment methods really be developing new antibiotics?
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