Seagulls Are Now Carrying One of the World’s Deadliest Superbugs

And they can migrate thousands of miles and drop it on our doorstep.

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-366857099/stock-photo-seagull-soaring-over-the-sea.html?src=tf8x3psTh36C0T_blbynmg-1-47">Zhukova Oksana</a>/Shutterstock

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Last year, UK and Chinese researchers identified an E. coli strain in Chinese pigs that resists colistin, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency antibiotic used to combat pathogens that are resistant to most other antibiotics. The discovery sent a shudder through global public health circles, not just because coliston is so crucial to human medicine, but also because the gene that conferred colsistin resistance, known as mcr-1, is highly mobile—it jumps easily between bacteria species.

“Gulls migrate hundreds to thousands of miles, so they could serve as a vehicle for carrying resistant bacteria somewhere new.”

Predictions it would quickly go global have come true. Just weeks ago here in the United States, colistin-resistant bacteria turned up in a pig intestine and in a Pennsylvania woman with a urinary-tract infection. And now researchers have discovered one of the ways colistin-resistant bacteria can travel, reports National Geographic’s Maryn McKenna:

… two research teams in Lithuania and Argentina report that they trapped birds and swabbed their butts, or scooped up seagull droppings, and found the resistance-conferring gene in E. coli being carried by two species: herring gulls in Lithuania (Larus argentatus) and kelp gulls in Argentina (Larus dominicanus).

McKenna adds that “gulls migrate, from hundreds to thousands of miles depending on the species—so they could serve as a vehicle for carrying resistant bacteria somewhere new.” She points to a 2011 study finding other antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these continent-hopping birds. They likely pick up such bacteria from their habit of eating garbage, Maryn reports.

Hitching an avian flight isn’t the only way bacteria cross borders, of course. Global trade and travel offer plenty of opportunity for pathogens to range widely. But the seagull discovery illustrates just how hard it is to control antibiotic resistance once it takes root. As McKenna notes, the mcr-1 bug has now been found in more than 20 countries.

Our pharmaceutical-intensive meat production model has gone global.

Colistin resistance first turned up on intensive hog farms in China, where colistin is widely used to make pigs grow faster. Routine use of antibiotics on livestock farms is likely a major driver of the rise of antibiotic resistance, according to the nearly every public health agency, from the Centers for Disease Control to the World Health Organization. The practice started in the United States in the 1950s. In a recent feature story, I found ample evidence that the US meat industry—which currently consumes 80 percent of the antibiotics sold nationally—is finally beginning to rein in the practice.

The problem though, is that our pharmaceutical-intensive meat production model has gone global. Even if we stop overusing antibiotics on farms here, resistant pathogens incubated on farms oceans away can cross our borders—including in the guts of seagulls. As with climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, the world needs a global pact to slash farm antibiotic use, as a major report commissioned by the UK prime minister recently proposed.

 

 

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate