Identification antibiotic resistance in the microbial communities of a Fairbanks permafrost gradient

IMG_20160405_190655Undergraduate researcher Maddie McCarthy was recently awarded a BLaST Undergraduate Research Experience. Maddie will have a completely funded summer of research ahead of her. She’ll be digging into the soil microbial communities of the Fairbanks Permafrost Experimental Station.

Climate trends recorded by the Alaska Climate Research Center show that the mean annual temperature departure in Alaska has been increasing since the 1970s. Osterkamp and Romanovsky (1999 ) found that temperature of the Alaskan permafrost table had risen 0.5 to 1.5°C as of 1999. As climate change continues to thaw permafrost in Alaska, we must better understand how the composition of soil microbes will change. This project aims to identify antibiotic resistant plasmids in the microbial communities in a permafrost gradient, and compare the number and type of antibiotic resistant genes present within the communities at each site.

Misuse of antibiotics has caused a crisis in our healthcare system as we see an increase in antibiotic resistance to human pathogens. Even so, natural antibiotic resistance has been found in ancient microbes in permafrost that predates the discovery of antibiotics (Perron et al. 2013). A study done by Allen et al. (2009) showed that soil has one of the highest concentrations of antibiotic producing microbes. Microbes in permafrost have been shown to contain plasmids that are resistant to several widely-used antibiotics (Forsberg et al. 2012). These microbes could present a human health concern if antibiotic resistant plasmids are transferred from soil microbes to human pathogens. Widespread antibiotic resistance will negatively affect human health and will limit our antibiotic treatment options. As climate change continues to increase the rate of permafrost thaw in the arctic, we must understand the hidden potential antibiotic resistance reservoir. Investigating the antibiotic resistance of microbes in a Fairbanks permafrost gradient will give insight into possible human health complications in the future as permafrost thaw affects the composition of soil microbial communities.